SOURCE: Nola.com

DATE: May 26, 2020

SNIP: A Louisiana island President Theodore Roosevelt tried to save more than a century ago has been so damaged by the oil industry, so tangled with forgotten pipelines, gouged by canals and pockmarked by oil wells, that the state has finally decided to cut its losses and end a decades-long effort to restore it.

But that’s not before pouring nearly $20 million into East Timbalier Island’s recovery, including more than $7 million spent on planning and designing an ambitious new project that the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority quietly canceled a few weeks ago.

“It’s too far gone,” said Darin Lee, a coastal resource scientist who manages the coastal protection agency’s efforts to save East Timbalier, an uninhabited and rapidly eroding ribbon of sand about 40 miles south of Houma, and the two dozen other barrier islands protecting Louisiana’s coast. “None of us wants to give up on this stretch of shoreline. We’ve spent a lot of time there, and a lot of money. But it’s had a cascade of additional costs … and it’s eroding very, very fast.”

The loss of East Timbalier would expose the 700-plus oil wells of Terrebonne and Timbalier bays to waves and storms they were not built to withstand. Also under East Timbalier’s protection are the soft, marshy underbelly of Lafourche Parish, the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, a shipping channel that connects to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and the crowded docks of Port Fourchon, the service hub for 90% of the offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Anything we can put between us and a hurricane is good for us,” said Windell Curole, manager of the South Lafourche Levee District. “Not having that island there, it’s a concern. Definitely a concern.”

Barrier islands are the first line of defense against hurricanes and storm surges. They act as speed bumps, taking some of the power from storms as they hurtle toward the mainland. Louisiana is investing heavily in them. The CPRA and other agencies put more than $800 million into bulking them up over the past 20 years.

Barrier islands are the first line of defense against hurricanes and storm surges. They act as speed bumps, taking some of the power from storms as they hurtle toward the mainland. Louisiana is investing heavily in them. The CPRA and other agencies put more than $800 million into bulking them up over the past 20 years.

In the 1960s, Gulf Oil, later subsumed by Chevron, built a 5-mile-long rock wall to protect its investments. It seemed logical: Drop hundreds of tons of rock to stop the pounding waves that threatened the wells. But the wall may have doomed the island.

“These rocks have consequences,” Lee said. “While it may have slowed shoreline erosion for a while, what you don’t see under the water is the shore face, which continued to erode.”

Wave energy bounced off the rock and scoured out sand under the water line, making the bank steeper.

“Eventually, the rocks collapsed, and they sit there, preventing recovery because no new sand can get back to the island,” Lee said. And the steeper the slope, the faster and harder the waves strike, amplifying the damage of every storm.

Roosevelt knew East Timbalier was under threat, but his main concern was poachers. Several bird species, including terns and other seabirds, had been brought to the brink of extinction because their plumage was in high demand as adornment on ladies’ hats.

Called “Bird Island” by locals, East Timbalier crowded with nests in spring, and in late winter, pelicans were said to darken the sky when they rose in flight. At least, that’s how it was in Roosevelt’s day. In 1907, the champion of conservation and father of the national park system signed an executive order making East Timbalier and three other Louisiana islands — Breton, Tern and Shell Keys — federally protected bird sanctuaries.

In 1915, Roosevelt traveled to the islands with members of the Louisiana Audubon Society. He came away awestruck.

“To lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach — why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time,” he wrote.

Masterpieces they may have been, but they didn’t stand much chance against the oil boom of the 1930s. Wells and pipelines popped up unimpeded for decades. In 1969, President Richard Nixon revoked Roosevelt’s order, formalizing what had already happened — the crowded bird sanctuary had become a crowded oil field.

The island likely has more oil flow lines buried under or around it than any other barrier island on the Louisiana coast, CPRA officials say. Many of the pipelines were abandoned, poorly mapped and had no clear owner when CPRA began planning to restore the island in 2016.

As for the birds of “Bird Island,” there likely hasn’t been a significant nesting population on East Timbalier in years, said Erik Johnson, Louisiana Audubon’s director of bird conservation.