Louisiana Struggles to Save Its Coast and Delta

BATON ROUGE (CN) — Louisiana cannot save coastal lands using the same systems that fostered their destruction, two experts cautioned Tuesday during a coastal advisory meeting. They said that the federal government too has to change its approach to flood control and saving the coast.

“The system has not changed. What we’re doing is building projects within that system, Robert Twilley, professor in the Louisiana State University Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences told the governor’s advisory board. “I don’t hear enough about this conversation.”

Twilley said that creating projects to protect the coast is better than having no projects at all, but he urged that past decisions have to be examined and choices weighed carefully today.

The Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation meets every other month to brush up on science and trends in order to advise the governor.

Coastal restoration is urgent across Louisiana, where coastal lands are lost at an alarming rate of a football field every 100 minutes.

Since the 1930s Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of coastal land, and another 4,120 miles is expected to be lost over the next 50 years if no corrective action is taken, according to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority website.

Land is lost in Louisiana from a combination of natural and manmade causes. Flood levees along the Mississippi River prevent sediment buildup that could contribute to formation of land. And the oil and gas industry, by its own assessment, has caused at least 36 percent of the land loss by dredging canals for exploration and pipelines, all of which have weakened marshes and allowed salt water to spread through coastal basins.

Barrier islands, marshes and swamps along the coast reduce incoming storm surge and help reduce the impacts of flooding. As these lands melt away, communities and infrastructure are increasingly vulnerable to storms and flooding.

Even before climate change threatened the Louisiana coast, systems put in place to control the Mississippi River damaged it, Twilley said.

In 2016, Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish became one of the first communities in the United States to receive federal tax dollars to move people struggling with loss of land due to climate change.

“The ‘climate refugees’ on Isles de Jean Charles are a symptom of land-use decisions – decisions that we can control – and that will be amplified by climate change,” Twilley said.

Some land losses on the Louisiana coast were a result of poor land-use decisions, Twilley said.

“Let’s not take away our responsibilities here,” he added. “We are building projects that are being put in a sediment-starved environment,” such as restoration and creation of marshes, which, for lack of natural sediments, will have a rough time surviving.

Conversation is needed now, with, public, private and governmental sources, Twilley said.

“But are we having this conversation with our federal partners? And with all the users of this protection? Like oil and gas? The industry is using this flood protection to boost its industry.”

Twilley said the oil and gas industry uses a national resource for its own profit, and the industry should give something in return.

“We have to think in generations. This is not something that is going to be done tomorrow. This is urgent.”

The state too needs a better approach to work out flood management with the federal government.

“There is no reason we cannot think of flood control as an infrastructure project,” he said.

“It’s a nuance, since federal ecosystem reconstruction and flood control seem to be in two different bins. So you say you need [to tell the federal government the state needs] a reinvestment for America to protect infrastructure of flood control along the river.”

David Muth, with the National Wildlife Federation, reiterated that the framework for coastal protection needs an update.

“The reason we have a system that maximally restrains the Mississippi River is because everyone [previously] had this idea we would use every inch of the Louisiana coast,” Muth said.

“We were going to drain the wetlands and use the land for commerce – that is the system – but we no longer have a mindset that envisions that future.

“My question is, is there a future for New Orleans and Delta communities?” Muth asked. “We have every indication that this is going to be a tough next 50 years.”

Louisiana may be among first states suffering from climate change-related disaster, but it is not unique.

“We’re not alone, we just happen to be, because of subsidence, among the first First-World cities to experience climate change,” Muth said. “But we have something that virtually no other city has, and that is a river filled with sediment.

“We’re not using the resource we have in the river efficiently.”

He added: “Louisiana faces new choices, and her future depends on making the right choices now. … “Successfully living in the Delta means living with water.”

If diversions were made far upriver from New Orleans, for instance, the funnel of water that threatens the east of the city would not exist.

“We are managing a system … based upon the [outdated] idea that the highest and best use of the land is commerce. We are now in the second generation of abandoning an idea; we now understand that wetlands are important. That’s a huge change in our philosophy … and yet the most important component of our system is still managed around that philosophy,” Muth said.

“I don’t know how to change it, but the change has to be started somewhere.”

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