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Fritchie Marsh is an area encompassing 6,291 acres of intermediate and brackish marsh located approximately three miles to the southeast of Slidell, Louisiana, USA. This wetland was originally documented as a freshwater marsh but has since been converted to a mixed intermediate and brackish marsh, and it threatens to become open salt water. Through the combined efforts of conservation groups and sponsors, the Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project was created and designed to restore the area to its original state. In the early years, this project showed a positive impact but soon suffered a devastating impact during Hurricane Katrina.

Classification

Although the Fritchie Marsh area was documented in 1956 as a freshwater marsh, currently the area is labeled as containing both intermediate and brackish marshland, distinguished based on the level of salinity. Brackish marshland typically averages in salinity at 8 ppt (parts per thousand of salt), whereas intermediate marshland typically averages at 3.3 ppt. In order for a marsh to be considered a freshwater marsh, the salinity level cannot exceed 2 ppt. With an increase in salinity comes a decrease in plant diversity and soil organic matter. Therefore, freshwater marshlands support the greatest variety of plant and animal life followed by intermediate marshland and brackish marshland, respectively.

The intermediate marshland areas of Fritchie Marsh are dominated by salt marsh hay. Big cordgrass and alligator weed are also found there. Because salt marsh hay tolerates a wide variety of salinity levels, it is also the dominating grass found in brackish marshland areas of Fritchie Marsh. Salt grass also tolerates the higher salinity of the brackish marsh.

A shift from intermediate to brackish marshland is possible when salinity levels increase. It is generally thought that these shifts occur throughout Louisiana wetlands from the intrusion of salt water.

Initial Issues

The conversion and loss of marshland within Fritchie Marsh has been attributed to its enclosure by highways. US Highway 433 was constructed forming the southern and eastern borders of Fritchie Marsh. Louisiana Highway 90 forms the western border and Louisiana Highway 190 forms the northern border. Although it has not been proven that these highways are to blame for the deterioration of the marshland, some strongly believe that they have had a great negative impact.

The natural hydrology of Fritchie Marsh heavily depends on deposits from the West Pearl River. The West Pearl River provides the area with freshwater, nutrients, and the sediment that is necessary to sustain a freshwater marsh. However, the enclosure of Fritchie Marsh by its bordering highways cut the area off from many of the necessary deposits coming from the West Pearl River. A small culvert placed under Louisiana Highway 90 allowed minimal input into Fritchie Marsh from the West Pearl River. At the same time, salt water spills into the area from Lake Pontchartrain through Little Lagoon and the W14 canal located along the Louisiana Highway 433 eastern border. The salt water penetration was not continuous but occurred frequently during strong winds and high tides. The combination of damaging salt water breaches along with the lack of freshwater and sediment input into Fritchie Marsh resulted in a shift away from freshwater marshland of 1956 towards a nearly brackish marshland visible by 1990. Some conservations believed that if allowed to continue with this trend, Fritchie Marsh would be destroyed and would be converted into an open body of salt water.

Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project

The Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project was approved in 1992. The project was deemed a hydrologic restoration project that would encompass 5,941 acres of the total 6,291 acre Fritchie Marsh. The project cost of $2.2 million was approved as well. It was estimated that after 20 years, 1,040 acres of marshland would be restored to its original state. The project was placed on a priority list, and the waiting game for sponsorship began.

By October 2000, the Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project had acquired both federal and local sponsorship. Locally, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority located in Baton Rouge agreed to sponsor the project. The Natural Resources Conservation Service also signed on as a federal sponsor for the project.

The main idea behind the Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project was simple: returning the natural hydrology to the area would restore the area to its previous condition. However, the adjustments necessary to achieve this would not be so simple. First, deposits from the West Pearl River needed to increase drastically. This would be achieved by increasing the size of the culvert under Louisiana Highway 90. Secondly, water flow and capacity would need to be improved. Dredging portions of nearby Salt Bayou would achieve this. Finally, an additional freshwater input into the area was necessary to combat the frequent salt-water intrusion. By building a weir and diverting water from the W14 canal into it, the upland runoff from the city of Slidell could become an additional freshwater, sediment, and nutrient contribution to the marsh. The project was completed in a single phase ending in February 2001.

Project Success

Based on statistical analysis performed on multiple variables described above, the Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project was considered successful in its attempts to restore the area. Prior to construction (1996-2000) there was a net loss of -126 acres of marshland. Between the years of 2000 to 2004 the land change was +13 acres. The percent of total acreage gained was +0.2%, which is a gain of about 3.3 acres per year. As described in the original proposal, the Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project would provide a net gain of marshland over a period of 20 years. It would be a slow yet steady gain as depicted from the results described here. The reference area displayed a land change of -6 acres prior to construction (1996-2000) and -4 acres in the years following construction (2000-2004). This was a percent loss of -1.0% post construction. Clearly, the project area showed signs of improvement while the reference area continued to lose marshland.

Although the immediate years following the construction of the Fritchie Marsh Restoration Project showed promising signs of improvement, the project would not succeed in its promise of continued growth due to Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects in 2005. As indicated above, post-construction and pre-Katrina acreage gain was +3.3 acres per year. However, between 2004 and 2010 measurements indicated that there was a land change of -916 acres. This is equivalent to 14.6% of the area being lost at a rate of -152.7 acres per year. The reference area also saw a dramatic decline in its marshland losing 7.4% at a rate of -5.2 acres per year. Additional analysis performed on satellite imagery of Fritchie Marsh during 2004 and again in 2005 also supported the claim that this devastation was a direct result of Hurricane Katrina.

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