Canal Ecology and Environmental Disaster in Mid-City, New Orleans
Cleaning up in the wake of Hurricane Ida, after a city-wide blackout, flooding in the northeast 1,300 miles away, and now learning about an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I’m reminded of lastyear’s hurricane, and a smaller-scale disaster that unfolded then:
Nearly every morning of the school year I take a two-mile walk: down the Lafitte Greenway, in Mid-City New Orleans, to I-10 and back home. The Old Basin Canal runs along the Greenway, but is mostly invisible—buried as it is well below streets, parking lots, and meandering drainage systems. Completed in 1796, this corridor connected Bayou St. John (which flows off Lake Pontchartrain) to the edge of the French Quarter, two miles away. During the decades after it was built, the canal was a main commercial throughway for goods coming to the city from the West. The canal was gradually supplanted by other avenues into the city, and was almost entirely filled and covered over in 1938.
Where the water is still briefly visible, it is a concrete channel near my home that somedays runs gin clear, and other days resembles Kahlua. There’s one part where this exposed passage syphons and drops six inches, and when the current is pushing hard enough there’s a standing wave that I can hear from up above. It reminds me of a certain wave I camped next to in the Grand Canyon many years ago: it looks like Hermit Rapids, only in miniature. But for the most part, it’s a slow if steady stream of water running over old mattress springs, bicycle frames, shredded clothes, and discarded beer bottles. For a couple weeks last fall there was a teal velvet sofa sitting at the edge of the canal wall; each morning it would be at a different angle, with new stains. One morning it was gone.
I started paying attention to what was down in the canal: sometimes a bittern, other times a white heron… once a feral black cat. There were fish in the water, too: tiny darters, mostly, but also what I recognized as cichlids—aquarium fish that got loose after some hurricane and took over a lot of the waterways around town. When cichlids are spawning, they have a distinctive, almost festive two-tone appearance: white heads, and darker bodies. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, if you catch a cichlid you are not supposed to release it back into the water. You’re supposed to “destroy” cichlids. Cichlids are related to tilapia, farmed fish which are widely available and often prepared and served at restaurants.
Another morning I noticed that someone had dangled a milk crate in the canal near the pump station on Broad, either to catch fish or maybe feed the large turtle that frequented this area. But it’s also possible that the milk crate on a string could have just been elaborate litter. There is so much garbage in the canal.
The water runs gracefully across tossed-off high-tops, old bed frames, and vandalized road signs and parking meters alike. But there were also blooms of aquatic vegetation, vivid green corridors and cubbies that I increasingly noticed the fish moving through. I started to watch schools of small bream shooting around in eddies near the canal walls.
One time as I walked up to the canal I was startled to see the current churning in the opposite direction—as if the world had suddenly been flipped upside down. The nearby pump must have been reversed, for some inscrutable maintenance reason. In fact, as I would later find out from a local engineer, this was the cause of a pump malfunction, when gravity turns things around and makes the water move the way it’s not supposed to—at least according to us. It bends the brain when you see water running in a way you’re not expecting it to. It was confounding, and I wondered how the fish were dealing with this bizarre inversion, their weed beds pulled all askew.
For a few days there was what looked like a black IKEA Billy bookcase lodged between an old wheel and the wall; the fish ducked in and out of the swollen particleboard refuge. I started to notice larger fish—in the six-inch range—moving in and out of its rectilinear shadows. With every storm, as the water level rose then subsided again, stuff would get washed away, and new structure would appear for the fish. The Billy was swept off into oblivion, but other furniture cropped up, only later to disappear, too.
I watched the cichlids make circular beds for spawning, and then aggressively protect the beds from other fishes’ intrusions. Life and non-life, waste and fecundity commingled here.
I kept my sanity during the spring and summer of 2020 by fly-fishing nearly every day. That was up in Michigan, where my family and I had fled in March of that year, before the lockdowns and quarantines set in. The national lakeshore near my home up there was closed, except for those who could walk in, so I was usually alone on the water… well, “alone” other than the millions of fishes and frogs and turtles and snakes and birds and insects and larvae. Plus curious beavers swimming up to me, deer sneaking in the woods and coyotes loping on the shoreline…. Alone, that is, but not at all. During those intense months early in the pandemic, being among these myriad creatures kept me grounded—if in water, too.
Back in New Orleans for the fall, back in our workaday routines, and Covid-19 notwithstanding, I needed to fish again. So I took my simple seven-foot Tenkara rod and some small trout nymphs to the canal one morning. I always wanted to catch a cichlid.
The first time I cast my line into the water, I couldn’t attract anything. Or, I would catch momentary interest from a fish, carefully twitching my fly around a cinder block, but then the fish would veer off in disgust. They were smarter than me. I dropped my fly next to a patch of submerged frisée, and navigated it around a floating blue face mask. Masks had become a new kind of lily pad in the canal. Still, nothing. Maybe I wasn’t using the right fly.
I went home and got out my fly-tying vise and materials, and scoured the internet for “flies for cichlids.” I tied some very small admixtures of minnow patterns and injured insects. I incorporated fluorescent orange feathers and dashes of chartreuse crystal flash. I tied modified nymphs with brass bead-heads and electric blue puffy bodies.
Most days I just watched the fish as I walked past, on my longer brief journeys. But next time it was overcast and the timing was right, I took my rod and line and flies and tried again. This time, I caught fish.
I didn’t catch a cichlid, but I did catch something even more special: a green sunfish, Lepomis cyanellus, a wily type of fish that I first caught when I was around 11, when I first learned to fish. I also caught a little largemouth bass—which surprised me, as they are typically found in larger waters. I snapped photos of these two fish and sent them to my fishing buddy Glen, up in Michigan. He replied, “I can’t believe how healthy they look, coming out of that water!” It was true. Both fish bore beautiful markings, and were picture perfect—little gems in the midst of the urban filth and assorted waste. I released both of these fish back into the canal, and from then on I was thrilled by the relative diversity of species in this miniscule urban wash near my home. I kept monitoring these fish in the dynamic lifeworld of the canal, as our pandemic fall dragged on. The cichlids proved elusive to catch. I started to plan a smaller, intricately textured fly in my head: I’d call it the Carondelet Crawler.
Each day would reveal new graffiti on the pump house, new trash bags amassed or spewing open on the street, herons and crows roving the channel. I mentally constructed my new fly: a tiny black marabou tail, some peacock herl with two strands of red crystal flash up front….
Then Hurricane Zeta came, and I was focused on life at home for several days. Stockpiling water and food, tying everything down that might blow away… then watching the storm come churning directly over our house, and experiencing the eerie peach glow of the eye right around sundown.
Power was out; tree limbs were down all over town. Tying flies and catching fish were the furthest things from my mind.
When we finally ventured out of our home, we were hit with the heavy aroma of diesel fuel. The air was dense with fumes; we could hardly breathe on our back porch. What the fuck?
After we had cleaned up and found our bearings, I went on my usual morning walk. As I rounded the corner to the greenway, I saw a bunch of pump trucks parked alongside the canal. The smell was stronger than ever. When I looked down into the water, it wasn’t water. The channel was covered by a slick film, milky orange rainbows undulating sluggishly. It was the fuel we’d been smelling a couple blocks away.
I asked one of the workers who was manipulating one of the big tubes, sucking off the top layer of gas into a giant cylinder on a trailer parked next to the canal, what was going on. “Some kind of spill. Maybe from the pump house.” He cocked his head toward the massive green tubes that arced out of the ground and into the pump house across the street.
The truck attached to the trailer said something like Environmental Solutions. Or maybe it was Environmental Strategies. The word Management might have been involved. Down in the water, I saw a dead fish; I could have sworn it was the green sunfish I caught and released a few weeks earlier. The vegetation was wilted and scorched, where it used to poke fecundly above the surface. Styrofoam cups and plastic detritus gathered in the nylon catch ropes that were stretched across the water.
I kept walking the Old Basin Canal, watching the spill keep spilling, day after day. The smell of fuel lingered, even as the water gradually cleared. Various vehicles were parked adjacent to the canal for over a week, all bearing different geometric icons and official if imprecise sounding slogans on their doors and on the vast tanks they were pulling. They reminded me of the ominous cleanup crew that arrives at the landing site of the spaceship in E.T. Strange concoctions were slung over the water, ad hoc things somewhere between barriers and sponges.
Still, fuel belched from the tunnel beneath Broad. One day I saw a grimy johnboat and a pirogue on the sidewalk, apparently having just finished with a clean-up venture down in the canal. Another day I chatted with three Louisiana Fish and Wildlife workers standing in front of a black pickup, who were surveying the scene and jotting things down in little notebooks. I told them about the dead fish, the turtle that I used to see there, and the various species I’d spotted over the previous months. They wrote it all down. They seemed incredulous that the canal had been home to such an array of life.
The stench from the fuel remained, the water below an oily mélange. I tracked down a tweet by our mayor that featured a photo of the cleanup, vaguely describing a “diesel spillage”—and suggesting it was caused by citizens who had poured generator fuel into the drain during the storm. I replied to the mayor’s tweet with a picture of the canal a week later, with the sheen of gas still prominent on the surface, asking what happened here?
A local engineer replied to me with a screen capture of a U.S. Coast Guard incident report grid, this line highlighted: “CALLER REPORTED A DIESEL TANK OVERFLOWED DUE TO HURRICANE ZETA, SOME WHICH GOT INTO A STORM DRAIN.” The address of the spill was listed as 3000 Perdido Street: the county jail, a mile away from the canal. What did the prison industrial complex have to do with this tragedy? Apparently, the diesel had flowed from a catch basin near the jail in our direction, and emerged here in the canal. But it was a lot more than “some” fuel. And “into a storm drain”—as if it just goes away, then? Storm drains always go somewhere else, usually toward where disadvantaged people live. And “due” to the hurricane—like, strong wind blew over a tank? I tried to discover more details, but the city’s infrastructural problems are manifold, and amid the post-storm cleanup this one “incident” faded into the quick past of social media outcry. Rainbow plumes remained visible in the water over the following months.
It eventually cleared; but the life was gone. I haven’t seen any fish in the water since then—no more turtles, either. White herons still hunt anoles in the willows off the Greenway, above… but I don’t see them stalking fish in the canal these days. I finally saw a pair of mallards making their way at a ferry angle across the tepid current; but they seemed disoriented, unsure of where they were. Maybe last year at this time the canal was their honey hole.
The water continued to pump through the canal, from the myriad drains across town into Bayou St. John and out, eventually, into Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. I had become attached to this lively ecosystem rife with plump fish improbably living amid the disgusting refuse of Mid-City. Now it was all but a dead zone. And there were no repercussions or sustained remediation after the baroque clean-up effort that wrapped up as unceremoniously as it began. For a few weeks following the spill, I watched the local news sites and searched for keywords online to see if anyone was reporting on it, or if there was any follow-up reporting. But nothing ever appeared.
I wanted to find out exactly what had happened here, to make people aware of the disaster. Of course, this was happening in late 2020, and tragedies were already piled to the ceilings of hospitals, morgues, and everyone’s minds. What was a polluted waterway and some dead fish, in the final analysis? As I approached the canal one morning in late November, a statuesque black-crested night heron perched on one of the concrete beams, staring resolutely down into the water, as if willing fish to reappear—knowing they should be there.
The graffiti on the pump house gets painted over, then appears again, different tags and slogans. A recent scrawl on the wall said, “Save the future!” I kept walking by the canal each morning, looking down into the water for fish, monitoring the confused pair of ducks, and looking for other signs of life. And bracing for the next incident, another indiscriminate dump into the storm drains—or worse.