Almost every hour, the Louisiana coastline loses a football field-sized piece of land.

And with it goes the region’s first line of defense against flooding and stability in the seafood, oil and gas industries, said Val Marmillion, managing director of America’s WETLAND Foundation in Louisiana.

To give the wetlands a boost last month, the foundation teamed with numerous organizations, including the Coastal Conservation Association, Martin Ecosystems and oil company Shell to place 187 “floating islands,” made of recycled PET plastic bottles, in shallow waters along Isle De Jean Charles, La.

The islands are filled with native plants in an attempt to build an off-shore “reef” of new wetlands.

Marmillion said it’s important to “stimulate inventive ideas by small entrepreneurs” to see if restoration efforts can be effective in small, targeted projects like this one.

“People are migrating northward. It doesn’t take a storm for tides to rise,” he said. “The region is living in a disaster economy – Gustav, Ike, [Katrina]. The region has been so damaged. We’ve got our hands full as far as raising public awareness and its impact nationally.”

If all goes according to plan, the grasses from the floating islands will take root to the earth below, serving as an anchor. In turn, the islands will trap sediment from the flowing water to form land.

Baton Rouge-based Martin Ecosystems developed the islands, which are 5-foot-by-8-foot pallets of recycled PET with a Brillo pad-like texture. The company, members of local Indian tribes and children placed the structures in the water.

Two saltwater plants, smooth cordgrass and seashore paspalum, were planted into holes on the islands and secured with peat, said Nicole Waguespack, co-owner of Martin Ecosystems.

The islands are connected with a stainless steel cable and solidified by anchors that are driven into the soil 15 to 18 feet deep until reaching clay.

Establishing wetlands will ensure that commercial centers like New Orleans don’t take the brunt of severe weather, Waguespack said.

She said generations of families have lived near wetlands and made a living in the coastal economy.

“As we lose more and more, what’s next? New Orleans?” Waguespack said. “The next line of defense is going to be New Orleans.”

Thomas Dardar Jr., principal chief of the 17,000-member United Houma Nation that resides in six parishes along the coast, said water has been “a way of life” for his people for centuries.

In about 2003, he said, the Army Corps of Engineers told Isle De Jean Charles residents that they would have to move eventually because their land was outside of the protection zone of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf of Mexico levee system that’s under construction.

Dardar said his people are aware of the dangers of living near the coastline, but they aren’t going to abandon their land.

“It’s our people, our heritage, our way of life. We’ve been living here for many centuries,” Dardar said. “It identifies who we are. … To native people, the land is sacred.”

Dardar said he’s optimistic about the islands and thankful that organizations invested resources to help alleviate the land loss.

“Time will tell if it’s going to work,” Dardar said. “Agencies looked at it and deemed our community worth saving. They put time, effort and money into experimental work. If it does work, it can grow from there. You know what? At least it’s a beginning. It gives us a little hope and encouragement.”

The island project, which consisted of four sites and more than 1,500 total feet, was the largest undertaking by Martin Ecosystems.

It will take about a year for the grasses to take root in the 3-foot waters; the group will monitor progress on the project for the next year.

Waguespack said the islands were a success at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the U.S., after being installed two years ago.

“We’ve seen plants jump off and start to grow around the islands,” she said.

Marmillion said the coast has been starved of sediment by the levee system on the Mississippi River. So far this year, the coastline has lost 30 million square yards, he said.

“Louisiana is experiencing the greatest loss of land on the planet,” Marmillion said. “As the land deteriorates, saltwater intrusion eats up the grasses. … It’s actually a very serious problem. The country hasn’t seemed to make it a priority. It’s a huge economic and environmental issue.”

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond Jr. at or 313-446-1653.

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