The Paul Revere of the wetlands
An “alarmist” is one of the nicer things his opponents called Dr. Sherwood M. (Woody) Gagliano back in the 1970s, when he began to sound the alarm that coastal Louisiana was washing away and that something needed to be done about it.
When he died July 17 he was called “a Paul Revere” as the first scientist to give an early warning about the state’s rapidly growing coastal erosion and to spell out just what that could mean.
His pioneering studies “marked a turning point in how we approach the problem,” according to Bren Hasse, executive director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which can trace its existence directly to Gagliano’s work.
It wasn’t an easy turning. His insistence on the need to protect our wetlands butted head-on with some important folk who either couldn’t see the problem, denied it, or who just wanted to continue business as usual, whatever the ecological cost.
Woody’s concerns arose from his fundamental disagreement with the scientific view prevailing in the 1970s over whether overflow from the Mississippi River could sustain the Louisiana wetlands.
Until his first study, it was generally believed that an annual overflow from the Mississippi River carried enough silt to maintain, or even expand, the wetlands. Woody’s 1970 research showed that levees along the river reduced the flow so much that Louisiana was already seeing a drastic wetland loss because they were not being naturally replenished.
“His overall findings were so unexpected and so shocking in scale that many Louisianians, including many state leaders and Corps of Engineers officials, were highly skeptical,” Mike Tidwell writes in his chronicle of our disappearing wetlands (Bayou Farewell, Vintage Books, 2003). “Most of the oil companies rejected the data outright.”
Gagliano and his research team stood by their data and dug for more. Between 1970 and 1973 they produced 25 technical reports detailing the land loss and suggesting ways to mitigate it, not all of them universally popular. He most often got into trouble when he challenged or suggested changes to big projects on the grounds that they ultimately could do more harm than good.
He was criticized roundly in 1973, for example, when he suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to build the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) off the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, in “the most productive estuary in the United States.” He suggested a better place would be nearer Port Fourchon, where it was eventually built.
Not everyone was happy when, later that year, he raised an alarm over a proposed deep-water ship channel across St. Bernard Parish to link the Mississippi River and the Mississippi Gulf Outlet. The ship channel, he said, would put much of the parish’s most productive wetlands under water. It was never built, and Woody had a hand years later in closing the little-used Gulf outlet that overflowed with disastrous results during Katrina.
“Criticized” is a word way too mild for the comment in some quarters when he objected in 1974 to a plan to widen and deepen the Atchafalaya River and bayous Black, Boeuf, and Chene so that large drilling platforms could be towed through them and into the Gulf.
The list goes on, but he always stood his ground and defended his data. He was sometimes outvoted but never defeated, and now we know that he was almost always right.
“History has shown that one person can make a difference, and that certainly applies to Woody Gagliano,” Hasse said. “Louisiana owes him a great deal for not only sounding the alarm in our coastal crisis, but for never giving up when few would listen.”
I’m not sure how he would take the Paul Revere comparison. He regarded himself as a scientist, not an activist, and would likely suggest that it was his science, not himself, that finally caught people’s attention.
But he would have to admit that somebody had to do the studies, present the data, and stand up time and again, often virtually alone, to deliver hard truths, even when it wasn’t a very popular thing to do.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.