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Nicholls State University Invites LICI to Participate in Wetlands Project at Nicholls Farm

April 3, 2023 Thibodaux, La.


Nicholls State University has invited the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) to become a partner in a new project where construction is almost completed at the university's Experimental Farm. LICI's representative, Gary Salathe, was invited to tour the project site back in mid-2022, after which he expressed a definite interest in his non-profit becoming involved. As construction neared completion in March of 2023, he toured the site again and worked out an agreement with the head of Nicholls State University's Biology Department and leader of the wetlands project, Quinton Fontenot, for LICI to become a part of the project.

Photo: The project's construction was completed in early 2023 with the exception of electric lines needing to be installed to the pump along Bayou Folse. Utility company crews were delayed installing the electric lines due to weekly rain storms the area

experienced in March and April.

Nicholls State University is located in the small south-central rural Louisiana town of Thibodaux, Louisiana. Its 277-acre Nicholls Farm is located just outside of town, a few miles down LA Highway 1. The Farm is an integral part of the university’s plans to become Louisiana's coastal restoration research center. In recent years, Nicholls Biology Department has produced over 30,000 black mangroves at the Nicholls Farm, which were planted in coastal marshes.


A master plan for the farm allows for putting sections of land into various uses, including classroom space, areas to test coastal restoration projects, and areas to grow plants for these types of projects. Ducks Unlimited, a national organization interested in preserving wetland habitats for ducks, approached the university about creating a wetland on their farm as one of the first of their experimental nutrient-reducing projects. They readily signed onto the project.


The purpose of the Nicholls State University/Ducks Unlimited wetlands project is to use native marsh grasses and plants to remove access nutrients from Bayou Folse, which is adjacent to the wetlands site. Here's why:


Each summer in the Gulf of Mexico along portions of the Louisiana coast, the oxygen levels drop below 2 parts per million, creating a situation known as Hypoxia. The result is called the “dead zone” because the low-oxygen area is where bottom-living organisms will die and fish and shrimp will avoid. The creation of the dead zone is linked to the flow of two key nutrients down the Mississippi River, nitrogen and phosphorus, that are carried by melting snow and springtime rainfall to the Gulf of Mexico from farms, residential septic tanks, and city and towns’ sewage treatment plants within the river's watershed.

The map above is from a NOLA.com article.


The Mississippi River's freshwater creates a layer over the saltier Gulf water just off Louisiana's coast. The freshwater allows algae blooms to develop. When the algae bloom is over, it dies and sinks to the bottom of the Gulf, where it decomposes, using up oxygen. The 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.

Obviously, 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 from 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, all right. Each summer, it often covers an area in the Gulf of Mexico the size of the state of Connecticut.

Image 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, until now.


Ducks Unlimited saw an opportunity to offer one solution to the problem of hypoxia and simultaneously solve another problem, how to increase the duck population. 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 thought that the supercharged wetlands full of these plants and nutrients will become the perfect breeding ground for ducks, helping solve the second problem.


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 that upstream location. It drains 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.


Photo: The ability of Louisiana irises to remove nutrients from water and soil are 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 really just a large ditch at that location. The photo shows an iris with its huge

root system just plucked from the water.


LICI's job as a partner in the project is to organize iris rescues and then organize volunteer events to plant the irises into the wetlands project. The job of the irises is to remove nutrients from the water coming into the project from Bayou Folse. "In other words, this is an iris restoration project with a purpose other than just growing irises. It will be a working iris project," LICI's Salathe says.


LICI will be planting the I. giganticaerulea species of the Louisiana iris from their iris rescue program into the Nicholls Farm wetlands project.


The wetlands project will also offer LICI a location as a home for huge numbers of rescued I. giganticaerulea species of the Louisiana iris that they rescue from properties throughout Southeast Louisiana. "What better home for them than in the center of a university's farm that is dedicated to Louisiana coastal conservation and habitat restoration?" Salathe asks. The Nicholls Farm already produces other native plants, such as marsh grasses, that are used as seed stock for USDA-approved nurseries to grow out for use in marsh restoration projects. LICI's irises will just be added into the mix, Salathe believes. LICI has also agreed that in future years the irises they plant into the project can be thinned out for other restoration projects. "They will likely will become a source of irises for restoration projects all across south Louisiana for years to come," he says.




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