CAERNARVON, La. -- In little nibbles and great gulps, the great Mississippi Delta is disappearing as the salty Gulf of Mexico invades and corrodes the landscape, a football field every 30 minutes, about 35 square miles a year at the present rate.
Now, in vast areas of the Delta, where the only thing thicker than the biting insects is the air that holds them up, there's no longer such a thing as terra firma.
The Mississippi River, the natural force that once counteracted the erosion by bathing the Delta in fresh sediment and building wetlands, has been rendered impotent by decades of flood-control projects and dredging for oil and gas exploration.
The Delta is "starving to death," says R. King Milling, president of Whitney National Bank in New Orleans and head of a state commission to save the coastal wetlands. "Doing nothing ... is not an option."
In Washington, Louisiana lawmakers are lobbying a House-Senate conference committee to include $200 million in seed money in this year's energy bill for restoration, which has begun on a small scale at places such as Caernarvon, 15 miles south of New Orleans.
Louisiana voters will be asked next month to approve three amendments to the state constitution to authorize restoration efforts and the mechanism to pay for them. To convince the rest of the country that the wetlands are worth saving, the state has embarked on a $10 million public relations campaign.
The gravity of the situation has made for some unusual alliances --"fundamental pragmatism," Milling calls it -- that include environmentalists and utility executives, Democrats and Republicans, hunters and bankers.
"Everybody at the table understands that the consequences of letting this go is unacceptable," he says. "If that happens, everybody loses."
When Milling says everyone, he is not just talking about his home state.
Without much prompting, Louisiana officials will recite with pride the Delta's contribution to the nation: 30 percent of the commercial fish catch; the entry for more than a quarter of oil and natural gas supplies; a majority habitat for migratory birds; five of the 15 largest ports.
In return, they want U.S. taxpayers to help fund a $14 billion coastal restoration project over the next 15 years -- twice the cost of the Everglades project and about as much as the price tag to repair the Chesapeake Bay or Boston's "Big Dig" highway reconstruction, the most expensive public works endeavor ever.
Civilizations have always flourished on fertile deltas, where rivers flow into lakes or seas: The Nile, the Ganges, the Niger, the Yangtze, the Volga all have places in history.
Over thousands of years, the Mississippi River built southern Louisiana, 5 million acres of it, to create the seventh-largest delta on the planet.
"Every delta needs its river," says Dr. Robert Twilly, a coastal expert at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "The Mississippi was like turning on a fire hose and not holding onto it. It whipped back and forth across the coast, delivering sediment and building marshes. As the river moved away, the land started to degrade."
In the past 75 years, about 1 million acres of the Delta disappeared -- an area the size of Delaware, Baltimore and the District of Columbia combined. If nothing is done, Louisiana officials say, the state will lose another million acres by 2050.
The assault on the Delta began in earnest in the 1940s, when the Army Corps of Engineers began a relentless campaign to harness the river and keep it from flooding communities and farms and disrupting navigation. Two thousand miles of levees were built along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
A decade later, companies such as Shell and Texaco began poking holes in the wetlands to extract pockets of gas and oil. They gouged out huge hunks of the marshes to lay pipelines and create navigational channels.
"No one is to blame," says Milling. "Everyone did what they did based on the best practices of that time."
Without sediment from the river to stop it, the Gulf of Mexico has moved in. Surging salt water has covered roads, graveyards and businesses. It has uncovered oil pipelines and killed plants and animals that once thrived in the Mississippi's fresh water. The loss of plants hastened erosion.
"It's not a pristine environment. It's not a wilderness environment. But it's the most important estuarine environment in the world," says James Tripp, general counsel for the 300,000- member Environmental Defense Fund. "The Mississippi Delta is without peer when we look at the importance of wetlands."
The Delta has another vital job. It protects New Orleans and other coastal communities -- where nearly half the state's population lives -- from storm surges of gulf water.
Most of the city of 483,000 is below sea level, in places as much as 11 feet lower. It is a sliver of dirt nearly surrounded by powerful waters and, experts say, largely defenseless.
Levees along Lake Pontchartrain's shore are designed to withstand only the storm surge accompanying a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph to 130 mph. About one-third of the barrier islands between the city and the gulf have disappeared since 1880.
The city has been lucky. Two Category 5 hurricanes, with winds in excess of 155 mph, drew a bead on New Orleans -- Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992-- but veered away at the last minute. Computer models used by emergency preparedness officials show that a very strong storm could kill 20,000 to 40,000 people.
In southern Louisiana, there's a saying: "Elevation is salvation from inundation."
For some, a small measure of salvation already has a name. It's called Caernarvon.
By boat, the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Project looks like many other water control structures attached to the Mississippi, with gates and culverts and levees.
But unlike other concrete barriers that hold back fresh water, the $26.1 million Caernarvon project siphons water from the river into adjacent marsh. Twice a year, for two weeks at a time, engineers try to imitate nature with artificial "flood pulses."
"Projects like Caernarvon allow us to test our scientific arrogance," says Twilly. "These diversions work, and they give us tremendous confidence."
Before the project opened in 1991, the area was losing 1,000 acres a year. But now, marshland in the surrounding area is increasing at nearly 6 percent annually, says Jack Caldwell, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
Monitoring by the DNR shows that plants that thrive on fresh or brackish water have greatly increased while salt marsh vegetation has decreased by more than half.
"If everything worked as well as Caernarvon, I'd be a lot more comfortable," Caldwell says.
The state recently opened another diversion project nearby and has other projects in the works.
But if there is one lesson the Delta has taught, it is that nature reacts to every manmade intrusion.
In the case of Caernarvon, the reaction came far below the river's surface, in the oyster beds.
Louisiana produces more oysters and shrimp than any other state, and is one of the nation's major suppliers of blue crabs. (In 2001, commercial landings of blue crabs totaled 41.3 million pounds, compared with 24.2 million for Maryland.)
"I guarantee if you go to Annapolis and have a crab cake, that crab cake came from Louisiana," says Twilly, who grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and has family in Salisbury.
After Caernarvon began diverting fresh water into areas with oyster beds, production dropped and the oystermen filed suit against the state. Courts have awarded nearly $2 billion in damages, and the cases are on appeal.
"Here's where you flip a coin," says Twilly. "We know that if we do something here, we can move the system back. But there's a cost. So, we try to move from a level of degradation to a level that supports both nature and human activity."
A recent Environmental Protection Agency report on the Caernarvon project notes that "oyster harvests are now rebounding. ... In addition, large-mouth bass catches have doubled. ... The number of waterfowl and alligator and muskrat nests in the estuary are increasing dramatically."
Milling has heard the praise for Caernarvon many times, and he is a little impatient that someone is again holding it up as a success story.
"It took 25 years from conception to completion for Caernarvon," he says. "If it take us that long to go to the next step, I'm afraid they had better find us another place to live."
In 2001, Gov. Mike Foster created the Governor's Committee on the Future of Coastal Louisiana and put Milling in charge.
By all accounts, the Louisiana native and bank president has thrown his heart and soul into focusing state and national attention on the problem.
The committee is an eclectic group. Tripp, representing the Environmental Defense Fund, sits next to Stacy Methvin, president of Shell Pipeline Co., who says he's delighted to have the oil company involved in helping fix the problem it created.
"People aren't out to point fingers," says Methvin. "For those of us at the table it's, 'OK, we've gotten ourselves into a big mess, and if we don't stop it we don't have much of a future.' That keeps us focused."
Getting $14 billion over the next 15 years is going to be a tough sell.
"The Delta's sheer magnitude works against it," says Tripp. "No one can comprehend what 3 million acres is. We understand the Chesapeake Bay. We understand the Everglades. We have a special feeling for coastal Alaska. But most people in the environment community don't recognize the Delta for the world-class estuarine system it is."
The state hired a media consultant to create "America's Wetlands," a three-year, $10 million campaign to drum up support, with Shell paying one-third of the cost. Two focus groups were assembled -- one in Baton Rouge and one in Philadelphia -- to help sharpen the focus.
The response on home turf was a collective hand-wringing.
"There was this feeling of total despair. The feeling was, 'Nobody is going to help us out. Nobody knows we're here,'" says Caldwell. "We are a poor state. We only have 4 1/2 million people. We can't go it alone."
But the reaction was different in Philadelphia.
"No one knew anything about the wetlands until we told them, and people were appalled that this had happened," Caldwell says. "They said, 'Fourteen billion isn't very much money.' That gave us a flicker of hope."
Paying for restoration, say some on the panel, may not be the biggest issue.
"In fact, the money is there," says Tripp, pointing to the revenue collected by the federal government for mineral, gas and oil leases.
Last year, more than $6 billion was generated from leases around the country. With 5,363 leases representing more than 27 million acres, Louisiana offshore oil and gas fields are the most developed in the country.
"The offshore industry is going into deeper waters and finding large amounts of gas. The federal government can adjust those oil-lease numbers. There's probably $7 billion now, and it could be $10 billion," Tripp says.
Whether Congress is willing to tap deeply into that revenue or to find another revenue source is unclear.
Methvin and Milling, who once represented the oil and gas industry, say it would be unfair to saddle energy companies with the bill. Even Tripp agrees that the entire country benefits from what Louisiana produces and that states along the Mississippi have prospered because of flood controls that have harmed the Delta.
"We're still in the easy discussions," said Methvin. "We do have difficult discussions ahead. Restoration means disrupting pipelines and ripping up wetlands and putting communities in turmoil. Decisions will have to be made about what can and cannot be saved. Everybody is going to be stressed about the solution. Everybody is going to have to compromise."
Milling says the astonishing loss of land every year means that there isn't much to debate on the issue.
"No one's ever done this before," said Milling. "We don't have all the answers and we probably won't. But if we wait until we do have all the answers to what we're trying to do, we won't have anything left to protect."