Inside Report: Finding the lost Bayou Bienvenu Wetland Triangle

When residents of the Holy Cross and Lower 9th Ward neighborhoods of New Orleans finally got the chance to return after Hurricane Katrina floodwaters receded from their homes, a few community leaders saw a chance to do things differently.

They wanted to rebuild with more emphasis on sustainability and resilience so if the levees broke again, residents wouldn’t have to start all over as they did after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Their commitment led to the formation of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, which has been involved in numerous projects to bring solar energy to the area as well as provide a testing ground for new ways of building in flood-prone areas.

As a part of that effort, the group worked with the Sierra Club to generate support and action on the restoration of what used to be a nearby cypress swamp that for years had served the neighborhood as a playground, a fishing spot and an area providing hunting opportunities.

Over the years, however, that cypress swamp turned into a pond of open water where the only evidence of the former forest is the remains of tree stumps that still poke out of the water during low tides.

With help from a wide range of sources, residents have slowly pushed the need for restoring this Bayou Bienvenue triangle of open water not only for ecological reasons, but also to serve as a laboratory and education tool and to restore a resource to a neighborhood that has seen better times.

Much of the area leading to a lookout point constructed over the flood wall to give an easier view of the former cypress swamp remains undeveloped, but recently some new signs placed at the lookout will help inform visitors about the area and what it used to mean to the neighborhood.

On Nov. 15, state and local officials gathered at the viewing platform to unveil the interactive signs, which will enable visitors to use their smartphones to watch videos, listen to coastal experts talk about regional coastal wetland loss issues and learn more about the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle. More information is available on the website as well at www.restorethebayou.org.

The signs are a project from the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, all joined by universities and other organizations over the years in studying and working on wetland restoration and awareness.

“The Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition is pleased to work with the community to help interpret one of the most visited and accessible coastal sites in Louisiana, the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle,” Amanda Moore, Greater New Orleans program manager for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a news release. “These one-of-a-kind signs will help thousands of visitors learn more about and engage in the critical effort to restore our coast.”

Some of the reasons the cypress swamp, which was still in existence in the 1960s, has since disappeared are smaller-scale examples of issues affecting the wider coastal areas as well. These include the sinking of the land, canal construction such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet that allows saltwater intrusion into areas that were previously freshwater habitats, and a disconnect from the Mississippi River, which used to flood the area and bring in needed sediment.

Amy Wold covers environmental issues for The Advocate. She can be reached at awold@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter: @awold10.