La. Looks To New Plan To Restore Fragile Coast

Third in an occasional series

Bayou Bienvenue in New Orleans i i

Bayou Bienvenue in New Orleans is an example of south Louisiana’s wetland loss. Fifty years ago, this was a productive freshwater marsh with cypress and tupelo trees. Today, stumps are all that remain, as saltwater has encroached inland. Debbie Elliot/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliot/NPR
Bayou Bienvenue in New Orleans

Bayou Bienvenue in New Orleans is an example of south Louisiana’s wetland loss. Fifty years ago, this was a productive freshwater marsh with cypress and tupelo trees. Today, stumps are all that remain, as saltwater has encroached inland.

Debbie Elliot/NPR

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is set to present the Obama administration's coastal restoration plan in New Orleans. Perhaps no state is more anxious to see what's in the plan than Louisiana, which has lost hundreds of square miles of coastal land in the last century.

In New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, Bayou Bienvenue laps at the rocky base of the levee that's intended to protect the neighborhood.

"This area and coastal Louisiana has been devastated," says Garret Graves, state director of coastal activities. He points to a few patches of lonely marsh grass dotting the choppy water and describes what it looked like 50 years ago.

"This area was a much [healthier], productive marsh area," he says. "Portions of this area at one point were actually laid out to be a neighborhood. And now this is all open water and dead cypress and tupelo trees."

The freshwater swamp that was once a buffer against hurricanes was dissected by a navigation channel linking the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico — a channel that turned out to be the speedway for Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

Louisiana's Projected Coastal Land Loss

Louisiana Coast: Projected Land Loss By 2050

Graves says the federal government's control of the Mississippi has starved the delta of the sediment that nourishes it. The land sank, and saltwater crept farther inland. Making matters worse, the state allowed industry to cut up the marshes with shipping channels and oil and gas pipelines.

This summer, something new encroached.

"With Katrina and then BP ... it was like a one-two punch," says Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, a group of women motivated by Hurricane Katrina to get Congress to do something about Louisiana's land crisis.

With oil fouling what's left of the state's marshes, Milling says now is the time for the state to make its case.

"I think people have looked at us in the past maybe with crooked politics. And you know, whether it's [the political family] the Longs, [former Louisiana governor] Edwin Edwards goes to jail, we've had a lot of blemishes," she says. "I don't think maybe we have touted the positive in Louisiana like we should have."

Web Resources

Watch a Times-Picayune interactive on the changes to Louisiana's southeastern coast.

Her husband, former Whitney Bank President R. King Milling, is chairman of America's Wetland Foundation, a coalition of energy, business and conservation groups. He says there is no excuse for not saving Louisiana's disappearing coast.

"If New York state had lost an area the size of Delaware, you don't think we'd have fixed it? I mean, it's just ridiculous," R. King Milling says. "When you think about it in that context, it absolutely falls within the area of ridiculousness. We should find a way as a country to fix something of this magnitude."

A New Sense Of Urgency

The spill has the White House looking at the Gulf Coast with a new sense of urgency. And Louisiana's elected officials, like Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), want to be sure the state gets a lion's share of the federal fines BP will have to pay, which could amount to tens of billion of dollars.

"Before the money just ends up in Washington in a big grab bag," Scalise says, "we want to make it clear that that money ought to stay here along the Gulf Coast states that have been impacted by the disaster."

Still, despite the situation, Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane University, says that Louisiana cannot claim to be a helpless victim.

"The Louisiana spin on it is: 'Look what oil and gas has done to us. You've got to come down here and help us' — when of course, Louisiana was totally complicit in what oil and gas did here," Houck says. "We invited them in. We rolled over. We gave them the minimum royalties, and we criticized and ripped to shreds anyone who complained about it. It's been aiding and abetting your own rape."

Houck says the state should have been making the oil and gas industry pay all along. Now, Louisiana is pushing legislation that would speed offshore revenue sharing with state governments — money intended for the federal budget until 2017.

In The National Interest

Getting scarce dollars from Congress will not be easy, says Mark Schleifstein, the environmental reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper. He says it's a challenge explaining why it's in the national interest to save Louisiana's wetlands.

"It's not a pristine area like the Everglades. It's a working coast, cut up by navigation channels that are used by ships, with these oil rigs and platforms. And it doesn't look like something that most of the nation [understands at all]," Schleifstein says.

Yet Louisiana's wetlands provide a significant portion of the nation's oil, gas, shipping and seafood.

The state has set up a trust fund, assuring that any federal dollars or BP fine money will only be used for projects like rebuilding barrier islands and making cuts in the levee to restore Mississippi floodwaters to the Delta.

In all, Louisiana officials say it will take $80 billion to $100 billion to prevent losing the lower third of the state by 2050.

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