October 30, 2023 Abbeville, La.
On October 28, 2023, Gary Salathe, with the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI), and Donald Sagrera, Executive Director of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District, each gave a presentation during an October 17th board of directors meeting of the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority (CPCRPA) in Abbeville, La. The Commission's regular board meeting location is in Lake Charles, La., but each year, they do one meeting in Abbeville, La., which is on the far eastern side of their territory. Sagarera and Salathe were invited by one of the local board members of CPCRPA to speak at the meeting.
The Chenier Plain Authority’s territory includes the Parishes of Calcasieu, Cameron, & Vermilion.
The CPCRPA is a political subdivision of the State of Louisiana and, through its board of commissioners, is organized with the primary mission to establish, construct, operate, or maintain flood control works as they relate to hurricane protection, tidewater flooding, saltwater intrusion, and conservation, and a secondary duty to establish flood control, adequate drainage relating to tidal or riverine flooding, and water resources development including but not limited to construction of reservoirs, diversion canals, gravity and pump drainage systems, erosion control measures, and marsh management, and is authorized to enter into contracts and agreements.
Photo: The Tech-Vermilion Fresh Water District's pumping station at the Atchafalaya River is shown pumping water into the Bayou Teche watershed earlier this year when only three of the five pumps were needed to maintain water levels in the watershed.
Donal Sagrera’s presentation was about the historic saltwater intrusion currently underway in the Vermilion River and what the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District is doing to try to push it back toward the Gulf of Mexico. He described the systems of pumps they use to force fresh water from the Atchafalaya River into the Bayou Teche watershed and how canals, locks, and other water control structures that they operated divert some of that water into the Vermilion River watershed for use by the towns and farms along the river. In addition, during the last two years, and especially this year, they are increasingly pumping fresh water into the system to hold back saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico that is trying to work its way up the Vermilion River due to an extended drought which is reducing the freshwater flow in the river.
Gary Salathe’s presentation was about the discovery of the I. nelsonii Louisiana irises (Abbeville Red Iris) in a privately owned swamp near Abbeville, La. in the late 1930’s and how it was named a distinct Louisiana species in 1966.
Salathe recounted how, on October 18th, 2011, the Friends of Palmetto Island, Inc. nonprofit joined Palmetto Island State Park, Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, along with some of the Office of State Park’s staff to plant 100 rhizomes of native Abbeville Red iris within the park so that the public could see and learn about these irises as they are blooming. Establishing the Abbeville Red iris planting in the park was a cooperative effort through a partnership between the Louisiana Office of State Parks and the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries. The Wildlife and Fisheries provided the funding, and the Office of State Parks provided the location. The Friends of Palmetto Island State Park purchased the irises and helped plant many of them.
Photo: Members of the Friends of Palmetto Island State Park and the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative are shown April 5h, 2023, at the boardwalk in the park as they announce the partnership of the two groups to restore the Abbeville Red Louisiana iris planting there.
The Friends group has maintained the iris planting site at the park's boardwalk over the years as volunteers were available. Salathe explained that the Friends group had difficulty starting back up and maintaining the irises after COVID-19 stopped all volunteer work for two years, so they invited LICI to take over the effort. LICI received a permit to manage the iris planting at the park and increase the number of irises, and the Friends group has now partnered in the effort by funding it.
Photo: This slide from Salathe's presentation shows the proximity of Palmetto Island State Park and the Turkey Island Swamp ( also known as the Abbeville Swamp) to Vermilion Bay on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
The main point of Sagarera's presentation was not just to educate those present on the purpose and efforts of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District but also to warn them that even though they have been operating their pumps full-out 24 hours per day since June, they have not been able to keep saltwater from moving up the Vermilion River since August.
Graphic: The room fell silent when the full impact of this slide was shown as the last slide of Donald Sagrera's presentation to the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority. It shows the historic levels of salt water that were in the Vermilion River at their different testing sites in October 2023 as compared to the same month over the last six years.
Native Louisiana iris species in coastal swamps and marshes can survive up to 10 parts per thousand of salt. However, their growth is impacted if they are subject to long periods of this level of salt. They can tolerate pulses up to 22 parts per thousand for brief periods during a hurricane storm surge. (Cypress trees match iris' levels for intolerance to salt.) The reading from the river's water tests at Palmetto Island State Park on Sagarera's slide was 17 parts per thousand.
Photo: Portions of the Abbeville Swamp are shown along Young's Canal. These areas of the swamp are 24” – 36” above the tidal impacts from the Vermilion River during dry periods.
In a discussion about Sagarera's slide once his presentation ended, Salathe said that, fortunately, the I. nelsonii irises growing in the Palmetto Island State Park's iris restoration project are about 12" to 18" above a very high tide, so they haven't been affected yet. He said the same is true for some of the Abbeville Swamp areas located just upriver from the park. However, much of the Abbeville Swamp is at the river water's height and is influenced by the tide during dry periods.
The main point of Salathe’s presentation was that the original swamp, where the irises can still be found, and the boardwalk swamp in the state park, where the irises from the 2011 planting are still growing, are both threatened by the saltwater intrusion from the Vermilion River and from hurricane storm surges and how these threats to this extremely rare native plant may be able to be used to acquire funding for projects to protect both sites. Just as many other rare plants and animals have been used nationally to justify huge outlays in funds to protect them and their habitat, the same could be done with the I. nelsonii iris.
The meeting was attended by people from the community and leaders in other coastal and parish boards, governmental agencies, and civic organizations. "We appreciated the opportunity to help make the board members of the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority and others in attendance at the meeting aware of this special rare native iris and the threats to its habitat," Salathe said afterward.
Sagarera and Salathe were contacted by a member of the CPCRPA staff the next day, saying that the board members were very interested in both presentations and asked if they would each email their presentations to them for future use. LICI also did a Facebook posting of Gary's presentation, which can be found here.
A Facebook video by Donal Sagarera about their work to pump fresh water into the watershed this fall can be found here.