A look at ongoing work, plus a promising new partnership with Ducks Unlimited
Blaise Pezold has been called by some, “The Marsh Doctor.” It’s a nickname he shies away from. But standing waist-deep in the marsh checking on recent plantings, you can see in his face the dedication and concern we all hope to see in our own doctors.
Fact is, lives and livelihoods are in the balance when it comes to the critical nature of coastal erosion and the ongoing efforts to stem it and regenerate Louisiana’s all-important coastal wetlands. And as the Meraux Foundation’s Coastal and Environmental Program Director, he brings a passion to the job you can feel and hear in his voice.
“Our coasts and marshes are not just critical environmental concerns, they’re an incredibly important part of who we are culturally and economically,” said Pezold. “Lose them, and we lose so much more along with them.”
So while he may not be a doctor or even play one on TV, when it comes to our coast, Pezold is always on call.
“It’s been an incredibly busy and productive time since I came on board in 2017. I feel like we’ve been really successful at leveraging partnerships and building solid allies and supporters among the St. Bernard Parish community and landowners,” Pezold says. “Of course, I was fortunate to build on a long legacy of work that began years ago.”
In collaboration with many partners, the Meraux Foundation has seen success in plans carried out under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act of 1990 (CWPPRA, pronounced “kwip-ruh” just to keep it simple). The Act provides funding, approval and legislative oversight for coastal restoration efforts.
The Meraux Foundation is involved in two LA. 39 CWPPRA projects along the MRGO. MRGO 1 is along the edges of its properties where there’s a lot of erosion. And MRGO 2 is along some other properties facing the same issues in St. Bernard. In response, the Meraux Foundation and partners planned a CWPPRA project that uses large mud flats to introduce erosion-reducing native plants. It was originally approved two years ago and has now been extended another year, allowing even more extensive areas to be planted. Pezold was out there recently surveying both projects.
Another CWPPRA project is in Bayou Gentilly, which Pezold planned in partnership with the USDA and NRCS to add plant life and habitat and occupy open water in an effort to slow down fetch (wind-induced) erosion.
He said, “It was installed about three or four years ago, and I just recently had the chance to fly over it and see how well it’s working—healthy and looking good. We’ve also started a new project like this for Bayou Savage.”
Another CWPPRA project is in Joe Madere Marsh. Pezold says, “this is one we scouted just to the north of Bayou Gentilly, and we’re using a similar concept to reduce erosion. The USDA and NRCS were our partners here as well and construction just finished up this year.”
According to Pezold, a CWPPRA project on Bay Denesse has been approved but is currently in a holding pattern because the river has been high. For this one, the Meraux Foundation is partnering with Tulane University, MIT, and the Water Institute of the Gulf to develop new designs for planting formations that prevent erosion and take into account how river dynamics interact with the spacing of plants.
Annual Events and Festivals to Engage, Educate, and Inspire
To encourage community support and involvement, the Meraux Foundation hosts a number of popular events each year. In addition to being “save-the-date” events for many local residents, they help raise awareness of the critical need to reverse coastal erosion and provide new volunteers and advocates for the coastal environment.
“Of course, we have numerous plantings throughout the year, such as a recent one at Bayou Beinvenue. These are all incredibly important to restoring our coastal areas,” said Pezold. “Sure, there’s a lot of work that gets done, but there’s also a lot of fun and camaraderie that happens along the way as well.”
“Our annual Cook Off for the Coast is always a fun time with lots of our great local food and music. It’s also a big fundraiser for coastal conservation and erosion reduction programs carried out by our local partners,” said Pezold. This highlight event is held annually at the Meraux Foundation’s Docville Farm in St. Bernard Parish.
The Mississippi River Delta Institute brings together teachers from the headwaters of the river and across the world to study the critical issues surrounding the delta region.
“This was our sixth annual institute,” says Pezold. “Of course, this year’s version was held online, but we still presented a very effective and educational program that brought together teachers from the headwaters and the delta regions.”
AgMagic on the River is an annual educational experience where youth learn about the important connections between agriculture, the environment and their lives. AgMagic is designed for youth in grades 3-6, their teachers, and the public.
“This year due to the pandemic, of course, we held a virtual version of the event on Facebook,” Pezold explained. “One unexpected benefit of having to strictly virtual was that we were able to distribute the seeds and plants we’d prepared for the event to many who were quarantined at home. We found that lots of people throughout the area took up home gardening during the shutdown, and this allowed us introduce whole new groups of folks to our cause.”
Just before the pandemic hit, the Meraux Foundation, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), St. Bernard Parish Government, and Two C’s Enterprises, Inc. partnered to bring oyster shell recycling to St. Bernard Parish. The program collects shells from area restaurants and uses it to restore oyster reefs that help protect Louisiana’s eroding coastline.
The Meraux Foundation also partners with the Parish, 4-H, and Chalmette High School on its Black Mangrove Program. Volunteers collect seeds, raise them in a greenhouse, then plant them in the wetlands to help reduce erosion.
“We’ve also got some really exciting new partnerships on the horizon, too,” says Pezold. “We recently learned that our application for the $2.5 million Ducks Unlimited North American Wildlife Conservation Act Grant has been approved. This will allow us to work with Ducks Unlimited and the Parish to build a linear group of islands behind the levee in Chalmette. It will slow down the fetch along the hurricane levee and create more wetland habitat for waterfowl. This is great news for the coast,” continued Pezold.
“I’m excited about the progress we’re making and the partnerships we’re building and strengthening,” he said. “We’re going to keep moving forward for our coast and the great people who live and work here.”