Fighting For Our Future
Imagine if the state of Delaware suddenly disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean.
Sure, Delaware is the smallest of the United States – but it is almost 2000 square miles, its population is about one million people, and among other things, it is home to major banking and pharmaceutical companies and one of the country’s largest U.S. Air Force bases.
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost coastal lands equivalent to the state of Delaware. And every one hundred minutes, the equivalent of another football field’s worth of land disappears.
This is an existential crisis for south Louisiana, but it has equally serious implications for the rest of the state and the entire nation. The good news is that the science and the methodologies are there to stem these losses, and there are multiple agencies working to implement them as rapidly as possible.
According to Simone Maloz, Campaign Director for one of these groups, Restore the Mississippi Delta, “There are many different causes for Louisiana’s land loss challenges. It starts with how the delta was formed. The river is the lifeline, bringing fresh water and sediment to the delta. But man has interrupted these natural processes.”
The Mississippi River levees, while necessary for protecting people and ensuring commerce on the river, have largely prevented the sediments that formed the delta from continuing to replenish it. The myriad canals cut through the wetlands, primarily but not exclusively by the oil and gas industry, have made the land far more susceptible to erosion and weather-related destruction. Sea level rise, compounded by subsidence, exacerbates the other effects.
“You have to find the solutions to match all this,” Maloz explained. “Science and planning are really important, and so is community input.”
Those solutions do exist, including options such as creating natural diversions that allow muddy river water to flow over sections of the wetlands, as well as mechanical processes to deliver sediment to targeted locations. Planting trees and other vegetation helps stabilize existing land areas, and closing off canals stops saltwater intrusion.
However … most of these are very expensive projects. Maloz noted that some $1.35 billion dollars is being invested just this year – “and we need to sustain this every year. Costs remain one of our biggest challenges, we have to have long-term funding to sustain this work.”
Presently, more than 40 funding sources are being tapped for this work, including the BP settlement and a constitutionally-dedicated share of the state’s oil and gas revenues. Various federal funding sources also contribute, including some that are disaster-related.
This leads to the first of the “elephant in the room” questions: why should people around the rest of the United States pay to restore the Louisiana coast?
“What’s happening in Louisiana is not unique to Louisiana,” Maloz stated firmly. “What we’re facing here could happen to communities all across America.”
Scenes of oceanic flooding from coast to coast and breached river levees across the heartland back this statement up. Further, the Mississippi River, and the ports of south Louisiana, are essential to a substantial portion of American commerce. A large percentage of the nation’s seafood relies on Louisiana workers and facilities. Migratory birds traveling as far as Canada make stops in the wetlands. The list is long and the interests are many and varied.
The second looming question is, given the damage that has already occurred and the relentless pace of ongoing land loss – compounded by the growing number and intensity of major storms – can the delta even be restored?
“We have to think about a future with a smaller delta but a sustainable delta,” answered Maloz. “We have to return to the natural systems that built the delta in the first place. That fits every definition of sustainable.
“We need near term and long term solutions,” she continued. “We have to focus in large scale projects today, with an eye to what is sustainable in the future.”
Never to be overlooked in all this are the human costs. “One of the toughest conversations is talking about the risk of living along the coast, a really tough and personal discussion,” said Maloz. “Our job is to make sure these communities have the best information about those risks and the projects we are putting in place to protect them.”
Unfortunately, even the solutions can cause problems, as changes in salinity impact oyster beds and other aspects of the seafood industry. And ensuring the constant navigability of the river is a prerequisite for all the work.
But doing nothing is not an option. People tell stories of going fishing today where they used to go hunting. Entire communities are threatened with relocation further inland, losing their histories and heritage. Ultimately, the entire people, culture, commerce and history of south Louisiana is at risk.
To learn more about the problems and possibilities surrounding wetlands restoration, download or request a copy of Restore the Mississippi Delta coalition’s Community Handbook, via the organization’s website, www.mississippiriverdelta.org/handbook. The coalition includes the Pontchartrain Conservancy, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society, and the National Wildlife Federation.