Four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Louisiana coast, federal and state officials are making little progress in restoring the state's storm-buffering coastal wetlands. Now, restoration advocates and scientists are increasing calls for a solution that takes advantage of the Mississippi River's natural land-building power by reconnecting the sediment-laden river to its sediment-starved delta.
A massive system of levees and canals, constructed since the 1930s to aid flood control and navigation, has made the mouth of the Mississippi River one of the nation's busiest ports. But the extensive plumbing works have also severed the river from its delta, disrupting natural processes that created the delta over thousands of years.
Historically, about 27,000 acres of wetlands and cypress forests served as a natural hurricane barrier, absorbing energy from tropical systems as they came ashore. But without the influx of mud and freshwater from the river, the state's once-extensive wetlands have slowly eroded, threatening wildlife habitat, fishing villages, ports and cities that now find themselves at the gulf's edge. Over the past century, scientists estimate Louisiana has shrunk by about 1.2 million acres -- and the losses continue at the rate of 32 football fields every 24 hours.
Even before the hurricanes hit in 2005, federal and state officials, scientists and environmental groups had begun trying to rebuild the state's wetlands, which provide crucial habitat for one of North America's most important migratory bird flyways, support commercial fisheries and help protect 2 million coastal residents from storm surges. Congress has also authorized several new projects, and the Army Corps of Engineers recently released a report on how to protect the coast from future storms.
But those efforts have, by many accounts, failed to address the problem in any meaningful way. Scientists and restoration proponents say it is time for a far more ambitious, delta-wide approach that would reverse some of the hydrological monkey-wrenching that has starved the delta of sediment and freshwater for so many decades.
"You have those old infrastructure systems that are wreaking havoc in these natural systems," said Robert Twilley, a coastal restoration expert in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University. "And things will get worse because of climate change."
But such a massive restoration effort would be unlike any the United States has ever seen, with a price tag to match. And while supporters see it as an insurance policy against even more costly future storms, questions remain as to whether federal coffers will open wide enough to pay for such a program in the midst of the worst economic recession in decades.
Army Corps on the hot seat
Current restoration efforts are divided among a panoply of federal and state agencies and fall under a tangle of laws and initiatives, including the federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act of 1990, also known as the Breaux Act (named for its primary author, Democratic former Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana) and, more recently, the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, which authorized $2 billion for the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration.
Under these and other directives, the Army Corps of Engineers, which built and manages much of the region's flood control and navigation system, has undertaken more than 150 projects to either restore the coast's natural features or armor the New Orleans area against future storms. The agency faces a 2011 deadline to armor the New Orleans region's flood control system to protect against a 100-year storm.
In April, the Army Corps closed the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a sparsely used shipping channel that many believe contributed to Katrina's massive flooding of St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. The project involved plugging MRGO's entrance with 300,000 tons of rock. Now efforts are under way to restore some of the thousands of acres of wetlands that were destroyed in an effort to build and maintain the channel.
The corps also recently released the much-anticipated Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration report, requested by Congress, which explores a range of alternatives for reducing risk in the five basins along the Louisiana coast. The report advocates a "multiple lines of defense" strategy that involves using natural features such as barrier islands and marshes to "complement" engineered structures such as levees and elevated houses to protect property and people. The report also offers ideas for restoration, ranging from mechanically constructing wetlands to diverting sediment-rich riverwater to naturally rebuild marshes and mud flats.
But some advocacy groups say the report, and the Army Corps' general approach to protecting the Louisiana coast, relies too heavily on construction of physical barriers like levees and too little on restoring natural systems.
"The idea that levees alone are going to be enough to protect these areas is simply not tenable in a short-term, much less a long-term, horizon," said Steven Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
And while wetlands restoration is part of the corps's strategy, such projects do not have equal footing with levee building, added John Lopez, coastal sustainability program director with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation in Metairie, La. Furthermore, there is no analysis of how the new levees would affect existing wetlands, about one-quarter of which would be cut off from the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
"Most people, including the corps, agree that we need a coastal buffer in front of the levees, because the levees ultimately won't hold up if they're directly facing the Gulf of Mexico," Lopez said.
A National Research Council review issued last month said the corps should focus on restoring high-priority areas of the coast (Greenwire, July 17). It also recommended that the Obama administration push for new legislation that would better support coastal restoration in Louisiana, similar to measures Congress passed to restore the Everglades.
Tim Axtman, senior project manager for the corps's restoration branch, said the agency was "somewhat constrained" in putting together the report, which was written over a short time frame. But the agency has used computer models to examine how natural landscape features such as wetlands, barrier islands and natural ridges contribute to hurricane protection, and has found that they do help protect the coast -- although the level of protection varies from one place to another, he said.
"We found in some areas of the coast it's very critical to reducing that risk. We find it's key features on the landscape that are influencing that surge," Axtman said. But considering that the broad scope of coastal protection -- including both wetlands restoration and levee building -- requires gargantuan amounts of resources, the corps needs to focus its restoration efforts on areas where wetlands can provide the greatest benefit to communities, he added.
Using that approach, "you may not achieve no net loss [of wetlands], but you would maximize the potential for reducing risk in developed areas," Axtman said. "It's prioritizing, and optimizing, too."
Aside from the controversy over the corps's priorities, funding remains a critical issue. The Breaux Act, which was reauthorized in 2005, provides up to $70 million annually for coastal restoration, but to date, Congress has appropriated about $45 million a year.
Pyronnin of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana said the Army Corps missed out on funding opportunities under this year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that could have supported several restoration projects that were already authorized because the agency was focused on completing congressionally mandated feasibility reports.
"What we saw, because of the delay in creating priority projects and comprehensive plans, was that not one coastal restoration project was deemed to be shovel-ready," Pyronnin said. "Because the corps had invested resources in other places, these projects were not ready to receive stimulus dollars."
Axtman acknowledged that the stimulus funding represented a missed opportunity. But he said many of the eligible Breaux Act projects were designed before 2005, and the corps must determine whether those projects need to be altered to account for lessons learned from Katrina and Rita.
"We've seen significant damage associated with the storms, and that's inspired some new thinking in how these things should be done," Axtman said. "We're still analyzing what would be the appropriate scale of the projects."
For example, a water diversion project originally designed to carry sediment and freshwater at 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) might need to be expanded to 100,000 cfs, Axtman said. Such a change would make the project and others like it more expensive, and that would require asking Congress for more funding.
Pressing for new commitments
Pyronnin and others are pressing Congress, the corps and state officials to commit -- administratively and financially -- to restoring the natural connection between the river and the delta. The resulting expansion of wetlands, they say, would not only help buffer communities against storm surges, but also enhance the coast's ability to adapt to sea level rise, one of the consequences of climate change, said Twilley, the researcher at Louisiana State University.
While the effort would not be cheap -- Twilley estimates it would cost about $14 billion, twice as much as Congress authorized to restore the Florida Everglades -- it is an investment that would save billions of dollars in future damages, as well as human lives, he said.
"The cost of doing nothing, we argue, is greater," said Twilley, who testified in June before the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee on restoring the Louisiana coast. Katrina alone caused $1 billion in damage, and if coastal energy infrastructure had not been largely spared, that figure would have been far higher, he noted.
"The challenges facing the Gulf Coast reflect a national inability to come to grips with the need to deal with neglected infrastructure, both natural and built, and the realization that both provide security to coastal communities," Twilley told the committee.
According to Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, projects completed so far have restored about 100 square miles of wetlands, but Louisiana has lost 1,000 square miles since 1932, meaning that about 10 percent have been rebuilt.
Reconnecting the river to the delta could go a long way in expanding that figure.
Axtman, however, cautioned against overreliance on land building as a restoration goal. "You have tremendous potential for building land, but then it also becomes a flood control issue for local communities," he said. "In doing this at a large scale, there's a lot to consider."
April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.