With a master plan and the money, can a state unite to restore its protective wetlands?

By Emily Holden | 09/11/2015 08:49 AM EDT

For the first time in history, Louisiana may have a significant pot of money for coastal restoration. The state has established a unified agency that could balance clashing priorities among environmentalists, residents, fishermen and energy companies. And with the not-so-distant memory of the deadly Hurricane Katrina and the threat of more damaging storms looming large, the promise of healthier protective wetlands could be within reach.

Second of a three-part series. Click here for the first part.

NEW ORLEANS — For decades, Louisiana schoolchildren have learned about the football field of land that washes away from their coast each hour.

But tight state budgets and conflicts between powerful interests meant the problem usually seemed too monumental to solve.


Now, for the first time in history, Louisiana may have a significant pot of money for coastal restoration. The state has established a unified agency that could balance clashing priorities among environmentalists, residents, fishermen and energy companies. And with the not-so-distant memory of the deadly Hurricane Katrina and the threat of more damaging storms looming large, the promise of healthier protective wetlands could be within reach.

Louisiana is at a turning point, coastal experts say, and the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial race will determine which direction the state heads (E&E Daily, Sept. 11).

The four candidates — U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the sole Democrat — have all vowed to make wetland restoration a priority while looking out for varied recreational and commercial users of the coast.

"This is the time when we move from planning to action," Kimberly Davis Reyher, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said at a gubernatorial debate at Nicholls State University last month. "One of these gentlemen is going to preside over a period of ambitious implementation of new restoration policies and projects. We’re going to see many new projects, and we’re going to see projects that are larger, more complicated, more expensive and arguably more important than anything we’ve seen so far."

Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has a $50 billion, 50-year master plan, about half of which would go to rebuilding marshes and barriers islands and diverting sediment. The other half would go to nonstructural storm protection — including elevating homes and planning for evacuations — and systems like levees.

Sand dredging
A pipeline moves sand dredged from a bar in the Mississippi River down the coast to rebuild eroded wetlands. | Photo by Emily Holden.

CPRA based the $50 billion figure in part on $140 million per year in funds expected from an oil and gas revenue sharing expected to begin in 2017 under the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act.

The Obama administration has considered redirecting more than a third of revenue from Gulf states to the general fund, but the president told CPRA Chairman Chip Kline he’s willing "to work with Louisiana and other Gulf states to create a mechanism for sharing of federal offshore oil and gas revenues," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.

On top of that, the state should receive about $5 billion for coastal restoration from a settlement with BP PLC over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We have a fairly good idea of how to restore the coast, how to deal with these issues. For the first time in our history, we’ve got a decent sum of money available," says Ivor van Heerden, the former deputy director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center. "So if we’re smart — and that’s always the problem — if we’re smart about how we use the money, we can come up with new technologies, new training programs … in the art and science of coastal restoration and coastal management, and that’s going to be exportable elsewhere throughout the USA and the world."

Watching climate change but not talking about it

Edward Richards, a law professor at LSU, paints a less optimistic picture.

After years of state budget woes, the next governor and Legislature will inherit a budget deficit of $1 billion, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported.

Richards expects the coastal restoration funding will be raided to fill budget shortfalls and said most of the projects that do get done will be for protection infrastructure, not wetland rehabilitation.

"If you look really hard at the master plan, it’s really about levees," Richards says. "All this wetland restoration they’re talking about is a fig leaf to buy off the national environmental community."

Other critics have called the master plan an amalgamation of already-proposed projects, rather than a holistic blueprint for the coast. They say it would be far more expensive than $50 billion to carry out.

Louisiana’s wetland loss is compounded by a number of causes: a natural sinking of the land; damage from oil and gas industry canals, pipelines and wells; man-made levees that prevent sediment from traveling to the coast and rebuilding the delta; and — of increasing importance — greenhouse gases that cause global warming and melt ice sheets to rapidly submerge what’s left of the old coastline.

The many other factors make it easier to overlook climate change’s role in the phenomenon.

Coastal Louisiana residents experience the symptoms of climate change — including land loss — directly. Land where they used to raise cattle has turned to open water right before their eyes, says Jeff Carney, director of LSU’s Coastal Sustainability Studio.

"If someone were to come in and say, ‘No, no, no, that’s a liberal conspiracy,’ they would say, ‘No, it’s not, there’s actually no land there.’ It’s undeniable," Carney says.

Still, "at some point, people have said here, you know what, whether you want to call it climate change, or whether you want to call it land loss or … relative sea-level rise, it doesn’t really matter," Carney said. "We’re losing our land here for one reason or another, so it almost becomes not the most important debate."

Hardly anyone in Louisiana will tell you the state doesn’t expect higher seas and harsher storms. Those assumptions are written into the master plan.

But in a state with an economy largely dependent on the fossil fuel industry, the causes of those problems are far less frequently discussed.

Last month, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) warned President Obama not to "stray into climate change politics" during his visit to Louisiana for the Katrina anniversary.

Will business as usual create more chaos?

Walking along the notoriously potholed streets of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward during a commemorative march for hundreds of Katrina flood victims, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune deemed Jindal’s warning absurd.

"This is a place that will always be remembered as one of the turning points for climate change," Brune said. "It carries so much symbolism around the country."

Brune grew up on the Jersey Shore, an area hit hard in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy — which has drawn parallels with Hurricane Katrina as an eye-opening warning of the dangers hurricanes pose to unprepared coastal cities.

Lake Borgne Surge Barrier
The Lake Borgne Surge Barrier stands outside New Orleans to halt storm surges. The barrier will combine with coastal restoration projects to minimize overall flood damage. | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-New Orleans District.

"It’s a pretty conservative district politically, and I’ve been struck by in the last three years how everybody knows it’s climate change, but they’re not wearing Sierra Club T-shirts as a result of it," Brune said. "It’s implicit, but it’s accepted. I think that’s maybe to a lesser degree what’s happening here."

Louisiana’s 2012 master plan seeks to turn back some of the wetland lost, with projects to rebuild land by pumping in sand and to divert sediment from rivers. The state is working on a new version for 2017. In writing that plan, the state must balance the interests of the many users of the coastal environment.

"Everyone has different needs and uses for the coast, and they’re not always compatible," says Alisha Renfro, a coastal scientist with the National Wildlife Federation.

From a four-person seaplane 1,200 feet above the Mississippi River, that is clear. Oil and gas navigational channels dot the landscape, fishing boats gather around an Army Corps of Engineers rock dam that blockades the man-made Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping channel, and petroleum refineries line the river’s meandering curves.

Louisiana is a "working coast," state officials, industry interests and environmental advocates will tell you over and over again.

"These industries are positioned in the river for a reason, because it allows them access to get products out cheaply," Renfro says.

With coastal land sinking and sea level rising, they are all at increasing risk. That isn’t unique to New Orleans, says van Heerden, former deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center.

"Anywhere in the world where we have a major port, we face these same issues," he says. "It reflects the fact that when most ports were established for sailing vessels, there were no mechanical engines to pick up goods and put them down. … Many ports were built as close to sea level as was possible." Much of New Orleans sits several feet below sea level.

A challenge that other coastal cities may soon face

"What New Orleans is facing, other cities are going to start facing," van Heerden adds. "If you start in the U.S. — Galveston, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Miami, Charleston, Norfolk, Bedford, New York, you can just keep going on and on and on."

In fighting land loss and preparing for future hurricanes, the state also must communicate the value of wetlands versus protective infrastructure like levees. The risk reduction is diffused across the coast and offers no guarantee of safety, says LSU’s Carney.

"People want that kind of guarantee. They want to believe. And we were willing to believe, we’re willing to go and live in places where 30, 40 years ago, that place got knocked out," Carney said.

"The master plan is really trying to maximize available funds to build as much land and reduce risk as much as it can, but there’s no promise by the master plan that they are making us safe — it’s about risk reduction," Carney said.

The coastal restoration debate is opening up conversations about which parts of the delta people should continue to live and work in and what should be returned to nature to build land.

Generally, population trends show residents are moving to higher ground, north of the New Orleans area in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, says Liz Williams, a researcher associated with LSU’s Coastal Sustainability Studio.

But new development is still happening in basins that are at high risk.

Williams says people could migrate inland, allowing fresh water to rebuild coastal marshes in some basins while industry takes place in other basins.

"There might be islands of industry that are allowed to be maintained, they’re allowed to centralize and sort of coagulate in certain key areas, but yet the community migrates northward and moves toward that higher lower-risk area," Williams says.

Part of the problem is that individual parishes compete for industry and don’t see the region as the "megasystem" it is, she said. Actions of one parish often impact the ecosystem of the parish next door.

Williams grew up in New Orleans and says the city is too "inward looking" and pays too much attention to what happens within the levee system and not enough to the threats that loom outside.

She calls the region a "litmus test for what is happening with climate change globally in a series of different delta systems around the world."

As retired lieutenant general and environmental justice advocate Russel Honoré says: "Global warming to most people is something that might happen in the future. It’s already happening in Louisiana."

Monday: How climate change affects minorities.