Students help New Orleans wetlands

June 25, 2009 By Kiera Wiatrak

A project led by students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and designed to restore New Orleans wetlands damaged by Hurricane Katrina recently took a major step forward.

On June 23, the UW New Orleans Sustainable Restoration Workshop launched two “floating islands” in Bayou Bienvenue, near the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. The islands were each 35 square feet and made from recycled plastic and marsh grasses.

“Two small islands won’t do much for a 435-acre lake,” says Tigue Bonneval, a employee of Floating Islands Inc., a Baton Rouge-based company that supplied the islands, “[but] this is a demonstration project to basically show what the islands can do and how they can function in that type of environment to restore wetlands.”

The goal of project, led by students at the UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, is to foster plant growth and provide habitats for wildlife as one of the first steps in restoring wetlands areas ravaged by the storm.

“The whole point of us being down here is getting the community educated and involved in the restoration of their bayou,” says Lauren Brown, a UW graduate student in science and landscape architecture and water resource management. “I think this renewed an interest, as well as an awareness, in the area about not only this wetland triangle, but also the state of the city.”

Several news outlets, nonprofit organizations and community members were present for the launch of the floating islands. The students purchased one with a McKnight Foundation grant; Floating Islands Inc. donated the second.

“We have more of an interest than anybody else in rebuilding our own coastline,” says Bonneval of the donation. “We all were born and raised south of New Orleans, so we want to see Louisiana’s coast restored and we want action taken quickly.”

Bonneval says the company has already received calls from people interested in the islands, and the students are pleased with the coverage.

“There’s just been a flurry of newspaper articles, and we’re still getting links to the local news that was aired,” says Brown. “We got lots of great press.”

The UW New Orleans Sustainable Restoration Workshop has been sending students to the bayou since 2006. This summer, 11 students will make the trip down and stay for one to four weeks. Interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate participants take a two-credit orientation seminar in the spring. They also receive credit for their work in New Orleans.

“I think [the project] can really serve as a model to other communities that are dealing with environmental and social justice issues,” says J. Ashleigh Ross, who recently received her master’s degree in environment and resources, and serves as the project’s coordinator. “People are really starting to learn the importance of the wetlands, and that the wetlands are directly tied to their ability to continue to live in New Orleans.”

Ross says the workshop encourages students to conduct research related to their studies while in New Orleans. Currently, a few law students in the program are coordinating a land-tenure project to determine public and private ownership of the wetlands. Other students involved in the social sciences are conducting surveys of community reaction and perceptions of the wetlands.