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LICI Completes First Louisiana Iris Plantings at Nicholls State University Wetland Project

June 14, 2023 Thibodaux, La.


Everyone focuses on the beauty of native Louisiana irises when they see them blooming in the wild. However, the irises serve the habitat in which they grow by consuming vast amounts of overabundant nutrients found within the swamp water, humus soil, and muck that comes from decaying matter. The ability of the irises to accomplish this is why the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) was invited to participate in an important project being done by Nicholls State University. The project aims to put Louisiana irises being supplied by LICI to work.


Each summer along portions of the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, the oxygen levels in the water drop below 2 parts per million, creating a situation known as hypoxia. The result is a “dead zone” – the low-oxygen levels kill bottom-living organisms and cause fish and shrimp to avoid the area. The creation of the dead zone is linked to the flow of two key nutrients down the Mississippi River and other south Louisiana rivers and bayous; nitrogen and phosphorus. Snow melts up north and springtime rainfall transports these nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico from farms, residential septic tanks, and sewage treatment plants via these waterways.


The map above is from a NOLA.com article.


The low density of freshwater from the Mississippi River and local rivers and bayous allows it to form a layer over the higher-density saltwater Gulf water just off Louisiana's coast. This nutrient-rich freshwater increases algae populations and forms a harmful algal bloom. When the algae bloom is over, this organism dies and sinks to the bottom of the Gulf, where it decomposes, using up oxygen. Low-oxygen conditions generally last until tropical storms or other weather events in late summer and early fall disrupt the layer of fresh water, mixing air from the surface into the saltwater on the bottom.


For a state whose coastal areas depend on commercial and recreational fishing, this is a huge problem. It is also becoming a national embarrassment that as ecological concerns in much smaller habitats get plenty of media attention, very few people in the areas upstream in the Mississippi River watershed, where much of the nutrients come from, are even aware of this problem. It’s a problem that often covers an area in the Gulf of Mexico the size of the state of Connecticut.


The graphic above is from a NOLA.com article.


Much work has been done, and is being done, to understand the Gulf of Mexico's annual dead zone. The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 (HABHRCA 1998, reauthorized in 2004, 2014, and 2019) reaffirmed and expanded NOAA's mandate to advance scientific understanding of hypoxia, and support scientists' ability to detect, monitor, predict, and mitigate its occurrences. However, not much has been done in attempting to stop the source of the problem outside of enforcing EPA pollution regulations that typically are not focused on nutrients.


Ducks Unlimited saw an opportunity to offer one solution to the problem of hypoxia and simultaneously solve another problem, how to increase the amount of duck habitat in south Louisiana. They have funded a number of demonstration projects in an attempt to show that creating wetlands near the source of the water runoff can significantly reduce the amount of nutrients entering the watershed. By planting native marsh plants within the wetlands and having the nutrient-laden water flow through, the plants will significantly reduce the amount of nutrients in the water that comes out the other end. This will help solve the first problem. It is believed that the supercharged wetlands full of these plants and nutrients will become the perfect duck habitat, helping to solve the second problem.


Nicholls State University is located in the small rural Louisiana town of Thibodaux, Louisiana, and has a 277-acre farm. The farm is an integral part of the university’s plans to become the center for coastal restoration research in Louisiana. In recent years, Nicholls Biology Department has produced over 30,000 black mangroves at the Nicholls Farm, which were planted along coastal areas. A Nicholls Farm master plan lays out plans for additional land, classroom space, and areas to test coastal restoration projects. Ducks Unlimited approached Nicholls State about creating a wetland on their farm as one of the first of their nutrient-reducing projects. Nicholls State signed on to the project.


Photo: The wetlands project site at Nicholls Farm is located on the map labeled "Bird Sanctuary" and the "Large Farm Plots" to its right.

The wetland project covers 21 acres of the Nicholls Farm. The plan is to pump water from Bayou Folse into the wetland, let the marsh plants remove the nutrients, and then return the clean water back to the bayou. The bayou is really just a drainage canal at this upstream location. Water drains into the bayou from nearby residential areas - many using individual septic tanks for sewerage treatment, some farmland and sugar cane fields (heavy fertilizer users), and some urban run-off from the town. The Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Entergy, and Lowland Construction all assisted with the development and implementation of the project.


The Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative was invited to participate as a partner in the project by the head of Nicholls State University Biology Department and leader of the wetlands project, Quenton Fontenot. Our job is to organize iris rescues and then organize volunteers to plant the irises into the wetlands project. The job of the irises is to remove the nutrients from the water coming into the project from Bayou Folse. "In other words, this is an iris restoration with a purpose other than just growing irises. It's a working iris project! We, too, signed on," says Gary Salathe, president of LICI.


Photo: The ability of Louisiana irises to remove nutrients from water and soil is well known. This photo is from a LICI iris rescue in 2020 on Bayou Road in St. Bernard Parish, La. The volunteers showed up with shovels, ready to dig up the irises, only to discover that the irises were all floating on the water's surface. They were growing hydroponically because nearby homes' individual home sewerage treatment plants had their outflows in the bayou, which is actually a large ditch at that location. The photo shows an iris with its huge root system just plucked from the water.


The wetlands project offers LICI an opportunity to find a home for huge numbers of rescued I. giganticaerulea species of the Louisiana iris from their iris rescue program. "It's hard to think of a better home for the irises than in the center of a university's farm that is dedicated to Louisiana coastal conservation and habitat," Salathe says. The farm already produces other native plants, such as marsh grasses, that are used to create seed stock for USDA-approved nurseries to grow out to use in restoration projects. "Our irises will just be added into the mix," Salathe adds.


LICI has agreed that the irises they plant into the project can be thinned out for other restoration projects in the future. The hope of all involved is that the project will become a source of irises for restoration projects all across South Louisiana for years to come.


Photo: Construction of the Nicholls Farm wetlands project was nearing completion when this photo was taken in March of 2023. One of two water control structures is shown in the photo. The photo also shows just one stretch of the vast amount of shoreline available to plant irises.


The water level of the wetlands can be completely controlled. Two out-flow water control structures lower the water level in 4-inch increments by removing metal panels, which are each 4" tall. The wetlands can be completely drained by removing all of the panels. A high-capacity pump installed next to Bayou Folse can raise the water level by 4 inches in a little less than one day.


Photo: Quinton Fontenot is seen near the inflow pump after turning it on it. Water from Bayou Folse is shown being pumped into the wetland at the end of the first iris planting.


After the wetland was completely filled with water for the first time, three LICI volunteers walked the areas that Fontenot approved for irises to be planted into the project. They flagged off areas that were holding between 3" and 6" of water. The grasses that had been growing in these areas were used to being on high and dry land, so they had begun to die off.


Photo: Two LICI volunteers are shown setting out flags in areas where the water depth was between 3" and 6" so that they could locate the sites after the water level was lowered for the iris plantings.

Preparations for the iris plantings began with iris rescues to collect the irises that would be planted into the project. The non-profit Common Ground Relief had an eighth-grade school group from St. Louis, Missouri, for a week of service activities in late April. One of their activities had to be canceled, so they contacted LICI to see if they had something they could do involving wild irises. "They ended up rescuing over 2,800 irises from the site west of New Orleans where we have been working to remove them, " Salathe says.


Photo: Some of the twenty students from The College School in St. Louis, MO, are seen on an iris rescue organized by Common Ground Relief to help get irises for planting at the

Nicholls State Farm wetlands project.


LICI organized iris rescues during May to add to the number of irises that would be available to plant. The New Orleans non-profit Limitless Vistas/ Gulf Corps, volunteered to do the job. During four iris rescues, another 3,000 irises were collected. By including some irises from the LICI iris holding area, there were likely over 6,000 irises available when LICI was ready to begin planting at the Nicholls Farm in late May.


Photo: During early May, small groups of Limitless Vistas/Gulf Corps job training program helped out by doing four iris rescues to gather irises for the Nicholls Farm project.

The final step before planting irises could begin was to cut the grass within the flagged areas once the water level was lowered in the wetlands project for the planting events. Mike Glaspell, a LICI volunteer from our Lockport, La. boardwalk planting, which is located about 30 miles away, agreed to come out and help prep the site.


Photo: LICI's volunteer, Mike Glaspell, is shown cutting grass with his brush-blade weed-eater to prep each planting site on Mary 22nd for the next day's iris planting event.

The first volunteer iris planting event was planned for Tuesday, May 23rd. Even though up to 50 volunteers were expected, it was doubtful if they could plant all of the irises. Because it was going to take some time to lower the water level of the wetlands, they wanted to try and get all of the irises planted into the ground within a few days of each other, so a second volunteer event was scheduled for Friday, May 26th.


It took two trips from New Orleans to get all of the irises to the site.

The morning of Tuesday, May 23rd, was clear, very warm, with very little breeze and high humidity. LICI's volunteers from Lockport, La., including some Louisiana Master Gardeners, arrived early to help set the irises out, put up four canopies, and set up tables, chairs, and other equipment. Their job was also to get the irises out of their containers to spread out across the planting area so no time was wasted by the planting volunteers carrying irises to and fro. When the first planting volunteers arrived, LICI's volunteers were already tired and hot, and their clothes were soaked from sweat.


Photo: LICI's volunteers are shown setting the irises out around the planting sites before the planting volunteers arrive on the morning of Tuesday, May 23rd.

Right on time, just after 9 AM, thirty-five volunteers from the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), in addition to some of the Nicholls State University faculty, staff, and students, arrived to start work planting the irises. Another canopy was raised on the far end of the planting area, and for almost 2 1/2 hours without much of a break, the group worked hard planting irises.


LICI's volunteer photographer, Henry Cancienne, was there to document the whole thing.




Photo: "In one of the most impressive displays of volunteer power that I have experienced so far in my iris restoration hobby, they planted about 2,000 irises in the first 1 1/2 hours of the event, " Salathe said.


Photo: A film crew from Ducks Unlimited arrived to shoot scenes for a

documentary they are doing about the project.


Video: About midway through the event, a snowball truck pulled into the remote site where the volunteers were working. It had been hired by the LOOP leadership to give all of the volunteers a cool break on a hot day.

Just after noon, it all ended with a total of 3,000 irises planted. All of the irises that had been set out and pre-positioned were planted. But there were still plenty of irises that were stored in containers flooded with the wetland's water that had not set out for the volunteers to plant.


The volunteers all went to the front of the farm to a building used for classes. Then a pizza delivery van showed up and delivered a tall stack of pizza boxes full of pizzas for the group!


Photo: Volunteers from the Tuesday, May 23rd iris planting pose for the final goodby photo.


The second volunteer iris planting event was set for Friday, May 26th. The volunteers were a group of college students from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Limitless Vistas/Gulf Corps workers, and LICI volunteers.


Common Ground Relief had been hosting the Bucknell group while they were in New Orleans taking a course on the city’s history for three weeks. This event was just one service activity that the group did with Common Ground Relief while they were in town.


The Limitless Vistas/Gulf Corps crew that had completed four iris rescues for the wetlands project wanted to see where the irises were being planted and to help with the planting, so they could go full circle from rescuing to planting.


Photo: The volunteers for the second iris planting at the Nicholls State wetlands project get ready to start work on Friday, May 26th.


"Thankfully, there was a stiff breeze blowing all morning, so the work was more pleasant than on Tuesday. The group worked hard and planted about 1,800 irises, " Salathe says.

Photo: Volunteers from the Friday, May 26th iris planting pose for the final goodby photo.

Fontenot went back to the planting site that evening and dropped one 4" panel down on both water control structures, and turned the pump on. By the end of the next day, the water level had risen to the top of the panel, which got some water around most of the irises that had been planted that week. Salathe returned to the wetlands two days after the last planting to pick up about 1,200 irises that were left over because there was not enough time to plant them. "The volunteers for both events were hot and worn out anyway by the end of the events, so these irises likely would not have been planted even if more time was available, " he said. He planted another 200 irises while he was there.


Salathe texted Fontenot and told him if he could get the water level up 1" all of the irises would either have some water around them or at least be in moist ground. Fontenot turned on the pump that evening. The water level rose the 1" by the following morning, when he turned the pump off again.


Photo: Irises with water around most of them are shown. This photo was taken after the water had risen by the height of one panel, plus 1" three days after the planting.


Salathe went back to the wetlands project ten days later to check on the water level because they didn't want to raise it back up fully until the irises had put out some new leaf growth to ensure they wouldn't be totally submerged. He gave the OK for the wetlands pump to be turned on to fill it all of the way back up after seeing that almost all of the irises had perked up or put out new leaf growth. He also planted 100 more irises, which brought our grand total for the planting to 5,100 irises.


Photo: This is the map of the 21 acre wetland that is being used for the 2023 iris plantings.


The university has plans to build a walking path between the wetlands project and another one they are just getting started on. Also, the long-term plan would be to build a pavilion that overlooks the wetlands project. The site of that pavilion will be near the area where the irises have been planted. Fontenot told the volunteers that the university will hold some type of open house during next spring's iris bloom so they could all come, along with others, to view the results of their work.


Photo: The Nicholls State University Farm's Wetland project after raising the water level to full capacity.


Salathe says the goal is to get in between 6,000 and 8,000 irises this year.


Salathe told the LICI volunteers that seeing 7,000 I. giganticaerlea irises all blooming at one time will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime event for each of them. He also pointed out that these 7,000 irises will likely double in number during the next year through off-shoot growth. "If we plant 7,000 more in 2024, that would mean there could be 28,000 irises blooming all at once during the 2025 spring bloom in the wetlands project. Now, this would be a historic event!" he told them.






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