Wetlands issue debated

By Tom Aswell
Special to The Journal

Floating muck and open water replaced onec thriving aquatic vegetation existing
prior to discharge in the Hammond effluent wetland, in photo from 2011.
Photo by Ed Bodker

The typically bureaucratic way to approach a complex problem is study it to death. That formula has been followed ad nauseam in Louisiana to address such diverse issues as traffic congestion, public education, water resources, and streamlining state government.

Generally, the only discernable result is that some consulting firm collects a fat fee to generate a report which is promptly filed away and forgotten. The various reports issued down through the years now are gathering dust in the Division of Administration.

Virtually every governor all the way back to Uncle Earl has initiated some study on governmental efficiency. Bobby Jindal ordered not one, but two such studies.
Now comes an outfit called Comite Resources of Zachary, Louisiana, with more than 30 "feasibility studies" on a concept called wetland assimilation which it hopes to implement in several areas of the state, including but not limited to:
- The Village of Estherwood and the Village of Mermentau into the Mermentau wetlands in Acadia Parish;
- The Allen Canning Co. into the Grand Cote wetlands in Avoyelles Parish;
- The Town of Cameron into the Cameron wetlands in Cameron Parish;
- The Spanish Lake wetlands in Iberia Parish;
- The Jean LaFitte wetlands and the LaBranche Wetlands, City of Kenner, in Jefferson Parish;
- The City of Broussard into the Cote Gelee wetlands, Lafayette Parish;
- The City of Thibodaux, into the Pointe au Chene wetlands, Lafourche Parish;
- Central Wetland Unit, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes;
- Luling Wetlands, City of Luling, St. Charles Parish;
- The Reserve Relief Canal Wetlands, St. John the Baptist Parish;
- Cypriere Perdue Wetlands, City of Breaux Bridge, Stephenville Wetlands, and Cypress Island Coulee Wetlands, St. Martinville, St. Martin Parish;
- Yokely Wetlands, City of Franklin, St. Mary Parish;
- Guste Island Wetlands, Guste Island Utility Co., and Tchefuncta Wetlands, Tchefuncta Club Estates, St. Tammany Parish, and
- Ashland Wetlands, Terrebonne Parish.

Areas outside Louisiana where studies have taken place include the Cities of Alamo and La Feria, Texas, and Chalacatepec, Mexico.

Tangipahoa was omitted from that list because the South Slough/Joyce Wildlife Management Area Wetlands, City of Hammond, is no longer just a proposal there and the results are somewhat less than optimum. The two primary questions of contention regarding wetland assimilation are:
- Is it a useful tool to restore wetlands or is it a mistake that accelerates the degradation of wetlands?
- Is it safe, or does it create an altered habitat that increases health risks to humans and wildlife?

But before getting too far into this, perhaps the term wetland assimilation needs a bit of explanation for those unfamiliar with the process.

This new methodology for the restoration of degraded wetlands through the sale of carbon credits is funded by Entergy Corporation, developed by New Orleans-based Tierra Resources, and approved for use by the American Carbon Registry.

Wetland assimilation, says Comite Resources on its web page, "is the discharge of an effluent, typically secondarily-treated municipal effluent (sewage) into natural wetlands."

Comite Resources says that wetland ecosystems "possess the unique capacity" to safely and effectively remove nutrients, sediments, and other pollutants, such as pharmaceutical and personal care products and estrogenic compounds from water sources "via plant uptake,microbial processes, absorption, sedimentation, and other processes."

One of the first to seriously study the procedure in Louisiana was John Day, Professor Emeritus of Oceanography and Coastal Science at LSU. He has been researching wetland assimilation for three decades and his research for the most part has led to the adoption of the technique in Louisiana Day co-founded Comite Resources in 1998 and the company has designed six of Louisiana's currently-active assimilation projects, and they are paid to monitor the sites and deliver reports to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Day said there are two major benefits to assimilation projects: municipalities save money on sewage treatment and nutrients in treated sewage serve as fertilizer to build up vegetation and facilitate marsh creation.

In coastal Louisiana, where natural hydrology has been greatly altered by oil and gas mining, flood control levees and agricultural impoundment, Comite Resources says that trees and herbaceous vegetation thrive on treated effluent components such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sediments, and fresh water when properly introduced. "The result is a cost-effective, environmentally-sustainable approach for municipalities to meet their Louisiana Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (LPDES) permit limits."

St. Bernard Parish is considering a new marsh creation project: adding partially-treated sewage to Bayou Bienvenue, east of New Orleans. The idea is to build up vegetation and spur marsh creation by tapping the natural fertilizer that humans around the world create daily.

Not so fast, says Edward Bodker, Southeastern Louisiana University biology graduate and retired state environmental manager for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD).

Bodker quotes a report by the Green Army, headed by Gen. Russel L. Honore (U.S. Army Ret.:
"The use of surface waters to dilute and assimilate treated effluent has been the most acceptable means of safely incorporating treated wastewater back into the environment. When sewage effluent is treated to advanced secondary or tertiary levels and sufficiently disinfected, it has been widely recognized to cause little or no harm to receiving surface waters. It is only when treatment is by-passed or reduced that water quality in receiving streams is degraded. The permit regulations applicable to surface waters receiving effluent have evolved over a hundred years. Increases in population and growing amounts of pollution all point to the need for a policy that enforces advanced treatment prior to discharge. In Louisiana, advocates for using wetlands instead of surface waters for assimilating sewage effluent, base their argument on the idea that money can be saved, if the permit limits are relaxed and that by discharging into wetlands, pollution will not be added to surface waters. The weakness of this argument has to do with a lack of understanding regarding the unique liabilities associated with introducing a continuous discharge of municipal effluent into natural wetlands, especially under relaxed permit limits. With surface waters, dilution is more efficient and uniform due to greater water movement and depth and when the effluent has been treated to advanced levels, there are fewer health and environmental risks."

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation recently held a second workshop on the subject at Southeastern. Assimilation consultants making direct, caustic comments about the "Nay" side of the issue. One Comite Resources employee even called Ed Bodker a "stalker" because he showed up at all the meetings and questioned the firm's designs and projects. He may be correct.

Bodker is steadfast and determined to go down swinging in his attempts to halt wetland assimilation projects.

Discharging sewage into natural wetlands is a flawed concept, Bodker says. For proof, he needs to only walk out his door he lives less than two miles away from Joyce Wildlife Management Area, aka Four-Mile Marsh, and one of the creeks that feeds Four-Mile Marsh touches his property or point up I-55 to the City of Hammond, which pumps 4.1 million gallons of barely-treated sewage into the Ponchatoula marsh on a daily basis.

While other wetland assimilation projects appear to have accomplished its objectives, the city of Hammond's project has turned into an environmental disaster, raising concerns about the safety of the concept itself.

Proponents of the project blame the destruction south of Ponchatoula on nutria, to which Bodker says, "Nutria didn't eat 700 acres of marshland." He produces photographs of red algae blooms, dead willow and maple trees, shriveled hackberry, cattails and open water where there once was land.

The pond formerly was solid wetland but now is open water. Marsh grasses are mostly gone, except for a few uprooted patches, or "plug islands," floating by. Because of all the water, two invasive species have now taken over: water hyacinth and salvinia.

Bodker meticulously rattles off the damages he says are the result of wetlandassimilation:
The addition of municipal discharge into a natural wetland inevitably increases water depth and flooding duration.

The addition of sewage raises pH and introduces other factors which favor accelerated decomposition.

The addition of sewage introduces excessive nutrients which alters normal plant physiology and eventually causes many species to be less resilient.

Claims that discharging sewage into natural wetlands is more cost effective are based on lower permit limitations. These limitations should not be relaxed.

Post discharge assimilation is not part of the treatment process. To identify it as treatment and compare it to pre-discharge treatment methods is very misleading.

Once sewage discharge enters a natural wetland, most of the control over it is lost and "adaptive management" can only address superficial aspects.

Plants are favored which are less desirable because they are floating or shallow rooted and often displace more desirable species.

Converting a natural wetland into a sewage disposal site makes for repugnant conditions and causes many undesired impacts that are associated with this utilitarian purpose.

Sewage is the more specific term that include human waste while wastewater is a more general term and can be anything from industrial to agricultural.

"Plug Islands" are sections of marsh that float up and are pushed on top of nearby marsh, especially occurred during Hurricane Alex. It's a sign that weak marsh soils are breaking up.

There are also spontaneous plugs created that float up and have vegetative stems in them. This vegetation died, it was not eaten by nutria.

There was high tree death when comparing on the non-discharge versus the discharge side of the ridge. Willow, tallow and red maple all died on the discharge site. Disease has been overlooked and is a combination of many factors.

Fusarium blight of Typha, Phoma fungus on button bush, Doassinacea deformans or smut fungus on Sagitarria cuasing galls and Anthracnose on Panucim causing purple leaves.

There are many algal blooms in the spring including green, red, pea green algae which are typical of oxidation ponds and indicate swings in pH and DO between day and night.

Panicum is stressed by high nutrients, dying back from the edge. It is demonstrating abnormal succulent growth in areas of high nutrients because the plant thinks its spring when it should be beginning senescence. It was not killed by nutria.

Sagitarria roots shift to rapid growth in high nutrient conditions making thin whit roots and produce sucrose over starch. Sucrose is used quickly by the plant while starch is a storage molecule. Roots are brown in the control marsh and are in storage phase not growing phase. The roots/rhizomes decompose a rise to the surface in chunks rather than forming peat.

Typha roots have adapted to grow deeper to get out of high nutrient zone, stalks extending 45 centimeters in discharge zone and only 8 centimeters in control marsh.

Floating vegetation is pushed to the south end where it thickens into a mat 3-5 inches thick, then rots, equaling soupification.

Ludwigia- shallow rooted annual that displaces perennials.

Ammonia levels are high in the winter when the thermophyllic nitrifying bacteria in the plant are not active because of the cold.

There is milky water in the discharge zone.

When the discharge is in the west end, water short circuits into the I-55 canal. When discharge is in the east the water runs south east and east.\

The Thibodaux assimilation unit is the oldest and is touted as the best example of why assimilation is so beneficial. Thibodaux is building a new sewage plant but will not feature assimilation. City officials say it will be state of the art system. If assimilation is so good why not go that route again?

Marc Rogers, an engineer working on the new 300-million gallon plant, said wetland assimilation that would cost of constructing the new facility than it would be to build an advanced secondary treatment facility where wastewater is discharged directly into a local canal.

Bodker, who has documented the harmful effects of the Hammond project with more than 10,000 photographs, has been attacked by proponents of wetland assimilation who claim his field tests without laboratory testing are unreliable. Undeterred, he says, "Field testing is a big part of research and is certainly reliable in showing the deterioration of the area."

He added that contrary to claims of Thibodaux officials that its facility is performing as anticipated, an upcoming independent study by researcher with no vested interests is expected to provide a different perspective.

A Comite Resources scientist conceded that the Hammond Project was a failure and a company spokesman, quoted by an attendee at that workshop at Southeastern, also said it didn't much matter that its project at Thibodaux was not working well because the whole area including the control unit would be underwater in two to three decades.