While traveling across Montana this June, a common sight was of Montana rivers rushing towards the Missouri River, and on to the Gulf of Mexico. With the heavy rains of June, these rivers have been carrying a big load of sediment.
At the same time, coastal Louisiana, an area much in the news these days, keeps shrinking. Every 38 minutes an area the size of a football field disappears, washed away by waves and tides of the Gulf of Mexico.
And, at the same time, a million gallons of crude oil surges out of that BP deep-water oil well every day, the ongoing disaster story that dominates the news media.
Now, let’s connect the dots.
At one time, the sediment from the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers here in southwest Montana, along with the Marias, Milk, Yellowstone, Musselshell, Judith, Tongue and Powder Rivers, to name just a few, emptied into the Missouri River, starting a long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Naturally, much of that sediment settled out along the way, forming sand bars, islands, replenishing riparian areas, but eventually washing downstream to the Mississippi River system and finally settling out on the coast of Louisiana, forming islands and wetlands.
That sediment doesn’t go far anymore. Most sediment on the main stem of the Missouri settles out in the string of dams on the upper Missouri. The sediment from the Yellowstone system settles out as the river merges with the Missouri at the Montana/North Dakota border and the next great impoundment, Lake Sakakawea.
Now, consider all the rivers of America’s heartland that used to dump sediment loads into the Mississippi which are now dammed and otherwise harnessed in the name of progress, whether that means hydroelectric generation, flood control, or irrigation.
The sediment that does get carried to the Mississippi gets rushed along by levees, dikes, and shipping channels. Much of that sediment, which previously spread out in a great river delta, forming and replenishing islands and wetlands, now ends up in deep water areas of the Gulf of Mexico.
As a result of all that progress, the coastal wetlands of Louisiana have lost much of their vitality and are prone to erosion, a situation dramatically demonstrated several years ago when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the coast, and some islands and whole communities were literally washed away.
None of this is new. It’s a process that has been going on since the 1930s. It’s estimated that 2,300 square miles of coastal Louisiana marshlands have disappeared since then.
And now we have the BP oil well disaster.
If that oil well were centered in Butte, the contaminated area would extend west to the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. To the south, it would extend to near Idaho Falls. To the north and east the spill would cover Great Falls, Lewistown, Bozeman and Big Timber.
From daily news reports, it seems increasingly clear that the BP corporate culture isn’t necessarily safety first. In addition, other observers have noted that other countries with offshore oil resources have more stringent environmental protections, including requiring that well drillers put down a relief well at the same time they establish a primary oil well. BP is currently trying to put a relief well in place, but it likely won’t be complete until August. Meanwhile, the well keeps gushing out a million gallons of oil a day, only a small part of which is recovered.
The loss of coastal wetlands and barrier islands means more oil is headed for the mainland, and oil damage to existing wetlands further weakens the already fragile system.
It’s only going to get worse. Tony Dolle, the Communications Director for Ducks Unlimited, who has spent most of the last two months in Louisiana as part of a DU task force, asks, “How are we going to tell 13 million ducks and geese they’d be better off not coming to Louisiana this winter?”
Like an old Cecil B. DeMille movie epic, the Gulf oil disaster has a cast of thousands and is years in the making.