Destroying Levees in Louisiana

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By Steve Haase/ Courtesy The Nature Conservancy
With the destruction of the levees, Mollicy Farms, located to the left of the Ouachita River, will someday match the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, located to the right.

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was…gone.

While this might not be the day the music died, one levee along the Ouachita River in Louisiana will soon find itself facing destruction—and it’s actually a good thing.

Although people have been battling river flooding since the colonial days, and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina bring appeals for more and stronger levees, these levees actually come at a huge environmental cost. Cypress forests and wetlands vanish, while coastal marshes yield to the Gulf of Mexico because of a lack of sediment to sustain them. The fish and wildlife that once lived in these habitats vanish with them.

However, at Mollicy Farms along the Ouachita River, all that is about to change. Two brothers, Keith and Kelby Ouchley, are leading the charge to bring down miles of levee and to restore about 25 square miles of habitat. Keith Ouchley heads the Louisiana operations for the Nature Conservancy, which is organizing and financing the levee breaking efforts. Kelby Ouchley is the former manager of the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, which is located across the river from Mollicy Farms.

Keith Ouchley says the project will “eliminate the risk of catastrophic levee failure, alleviate flooding downstream, improve water quality, and enhance fish and wildlife habitats.”

The most important part of the project, however, might just be the idea that levees can come down. This will be the biggest levee busting project ever to take place in the United States, and may open the way to restoring more natural wetlands. When the levee broke naturally in May of this year, it actually reduced the flood risk to Monroe City, downstream.

The Federal Fish and Wildlife service acquired Mollicy Farms in 1990. In the 1960s the land was cleared and ringed with levees to allow for soybean planting. Now, the Nature Conservancy is reclaiming the land through the planting of cypress, oak, green ash, sweetgum and pecan trees. With the destruction of the levees, the muddy river should turn into a swampy bottomland that can be home to black bear cubs, largemouth bass, crawfish, turkeys and cottonmouths.

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