DELACROIX, La. – A lily white egret hovers at the water's edge and then settles on its long legs in the towering marsh grass. So far, the oil has not penetrated this maze of waterways. There are no oil-soaked birds – at least not yet.
In Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs – Bayou of Buffalos – at Louisiana's outer edge, Monday is one of the first clear, calm days since an oil rig exploded off the coast, unleashing an underwater gusher that is spewing thousands of gallons of sweet crude into the water every day.
In this tiny fishing community at the end of the road, several dozen homes and trailers lifted up on stilts overlook the marsh. The skeletal remains of boat houses and homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still stand amid what was rebuilt, storm detritus still hanging on the frames. A few locals huddle on a dock by their boats, watching the wind, the tides, the wave action, wondering whether the oil will destroy what remains of this pristine habitat — and their way of life.
"Every inch of this habitat has something living on it," says environmentalist John Lopez, who is acting as tour guide today. This marsh not only supports dozens of endangered species, says Lopez, director of sustainability at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and preserving the water quality, coast, and habitats of the salt water estuary. It is a nursery for the Gulf.
"Sixty to 70 percent of the commercial (fish) species in the Gulf depend on the Louisiana wetlands," he says.
Even if this area dodges the immediate threat of an oil invasion, the marsh is in a precipitous decline, and the oil industry is one of the key reasons, according to Lopez. Oil companies have carved canals through the marsh over the decades to make way for drilling rigs and pipelines, splintering a cohesive ecosystem, he says. That has changed the flow of water, the types of plants that can survive and the ability of the area to protect the mainland from hurricanes.
From 1932 to the present, the Louisiana wetland has lost about half of its total area – a football field of area every 45 minutes on average. The oil industry is believed to have caused 30 to 40 percent of the total loss of marshland, according to Lopez. "It's hard to quantify, but we know (the oil industry) had a big impact," he says.
Projects to control the Mississippi River and hurricanes have also contributed to the loss of wetlands, he says.
Now, the residents of Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs watch and wait to see whether this oil in the Gulf will finish the job that the pursuit of oil has accelerated.