For a few hours on Nov. 18, miles of coastal Louisiana were reduced to a plastic box of sand that was subjected to the constant flow of water spouting from a bottle that represented the Mississippi River.
“We’re trying to get water over to there, to make new land,” New Harmony High School student Maria Gereighty said. “We’re trying to get the water to flow this way because the area back here is empty … you see it’s flooding and it could be worse, like over years and years to the point where it could be covered with water.”
The simulation, created by the University of New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Science (PIES), was meant to illustrate how the water’s flow can aid in the creation of wetlands.
Wetlands help provide a protective buffer from strong winds and storm surge; fewer wetlands could mean increased inland flooding and property damage. Louisiana's wetlands represent about 40 percent of the wetlands of the continental United States, but about 80 percent of the losses, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientists.
The goal of the PIES’ simulation was to use the flow of the “Mississippi River” to move and deposit nutrient-rich sediment along the coast to create wetlands.
However, that natural process of sedimentation does not always work as planned, Dinah Maygarden, research associate and science education program director at UNO’s Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Science, told the group of New Harmony High School ninth-graders.
“That’s kind of how the river is, it doesn’t always cooperate,” said Maygarden. “What can we do?”
The students were participating in UNO’s coastal education program, which provides hands-on science-based learning activities to teach about Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. The program seeks to increase awareness and understanding of the issues surrounding coastal land loss and restoration by interpreting the science and providing opportunities for students to interact with the environment.
A portion of that day’s lesson, which was taught under the outdoor pavilion at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge Ridge Trail in New Orleans East, was an engineering challenge on ways to create new land.
Maygarden used the dilemma to explain the engineering concept of dredging, digging sand from the river’s bottom to deposit it elsewhere.
“They take machinery,” Maygarden explained as she used her finger in the sand, “and they move sediment around.”
Across the pavilion, other students were engaged in a coastal watershed game. A map of Louisiana’s coastland covered the table and students had to decide the best type of coastal restoration project to invest in for their area.
“The goal of the game was to get the most points, but it was mainly about the plans that they are already working on for coastal restorations, for saving the land,” New Harmony student Hayes Kempt said. “It was also helping us learn about spending money on those projects.”
The outing on Nov. 18 was part of a series of outreach sessions with the high school students. An earlier session was spent at the University of New Orleans Coastal Education and Research Facility in New Orleans.
Students used canoes to observe and explore the brackish marsh ecosystem, measure salinity and take plant samples, Maygarden said.
“We were doing measurement of water flows, observations so they have that experience out in the wetlands,” Maygarden said. “The idea of this session is to take some of the things they learned from that and start thinking about the issues of coastal zones, land loss and how we build new land. That’s what all this mud and sand and that (coastal water shed) game is about.”