Wetland Resources Invents Ways To Save Coastline Faster

May 12, 2015

Wetland Resources plants hurricane resistant trees to protect Louisiana’s coastline.

Demetra Kandalepas is a senior scientist at Wetland Resources. We’re on the way to visit their bald cypress and tupelo nursery. It’s in the middle of a marsh. We drive down a muddy path next to a huge, raised pipe.

“This pipe it empties all of Hammond’s secondarily treated effluent,” explains Kandalepas. “Which is all the poop. It’s secondarily treated, which means all the solids and bio solids have been removed. Whatever is left over has been completely sterilized. What’s being dumped into these plants is fresh water and nutrients. So the plants love it.” 

We stop and duck under the pipe where water is streaming out, and suddenly, in the middle of the marsh, we’re standing on a wooden platform, which is essentially the Wetland Resources nursery.

A pipe carrying Hammond's effluent feeds the nursery's young trees
Credit Eve Abrams / WWNO

“They basically look like boat docks,” explains Kandalepas. “We built all these. In between where the slips are, that look like where the boats might be docked is where we plant the cypress and tupelo trees.

“So what’s coming out of the pipe is what’s flushed down the toilet in Hammond.

“This is the most expensive step in water purification. It requires a lot of electricity so the city of Hammond is saving hundreds of thousands a year by doing this. This is cleaned by the plants. The water moves slowly through the marsh, and as it does, the plants take in the nutrients and fresh water. By the time it’s 400 meters out there’s no nutrients detected in the water. It’s completely drinkable, swimmable and fishable.” 

Thanks to Wetland Resources, not only does Hammond’s wastewater get cleaned, but young trees – destined to replenish the wetlands along our vanishing coastline – are grown in the perfect conditions.

In most places, “cypress and tupelo are grown incorrectly,” declares Demetra’s partner at Wetland Resources, Gary Shaffer. “They’re grown like corn.”

Shaffer says in marshes, cypress and tupelo trees are anaerobic. They don’t need air. But most places grow these trees aerobically, with air.

“So they’re grown in aerobic conditions. They make aerobic root systems. And then you take that same tree and stick it in an anaerobic soil and the roots don’t work anymore. So they actually have to kill their root system off and grow a new one which is suited for wetlands. We start out in wetlands so the root system is already completely adapted to where they’re going. You stick them in the ground and they just start growing.

“The cypress is a conifer with needles and the tupelo is a broad leaf. They’re both very beautiful and very strong in hurricanes. Just about impossible to blow these trees over. The final destination of these trees is the Central Wetlands which is east of St. Bernard and south of New Orleans. It used to be 30,000 acres. MRGO in the early 60’s killed it in all of two years by bringing salt water in. We’d love to turn the whole thing into cypress tupelo swamp.”

Shaffer says coastal Louisiana’s biggest problem is saltwater intrusion. Not only do cypress and tupelo protect against hurricanes, they build back the land through their roots, which trap sediment, and their leaves, which decompose extremely slowly in the marsh. But these trees die in saltwater. Restoration requires freshwater.

“That’s the key,” declares Shaffer. “And Louisiana has a surplus of water. Wasted water is all over coastal Louisiana. All of the toilets that get flushed in coastal Louisiana, that’s wasted water that we could be using to hugely benefit our wetlands.”

After these young trees are matured using Hammond’s wastewater, Wetland Resources loads them on sleds in the wetlands near Violet, tie the sleds around their waists, and walks through the mud to replant what was destroyed by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It’s slow going.

“Right now our team is lucky to get about 400 seedlings in the ground every day,” laments Shaffer, “because you have to protect each tree against nutria, and the protection is very cumbersome. It takes two people 5 minutes to get something done out there.”

So they invented a contraption called a Grow Shelter, which could increase the number of trees they can plant in one day from 400 to as much as 4,000.

“So once you get out into the field you shake the tree through the bottom of the pot and the pot telescopes into protection and it’s already around the tree,” explains Shaffer. “So you don’t have to build it, you don’t have to wrap it. It’s all done. So instead of 5 minutes it maybe takes 30 seconds to plant a tree.”

Once they’ve patented the Grow Shelter and mass produced it, Wetland Resources will be able to do large scale restoration work. In other words, they’ll be able to save the coastline faster.

“When you go out in the field and you get 400 trees in the ground and you’re driving home and that’s seven people, it’s not enough,” says Shaffer. “It’s not enough to be satisfying. If that same day had 4,000 trees in the ground, that’s a massive restoration you just did in one day.”