Restoration of Gulf Coast Wetlands Poses Challenge

The coastal wetlands of Louisiana have been destroyed by decades of development and engineering projects. Scientists want to restore these wetlands, but there's uncertainty about how to proceed with such a huge task.

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Scientists want to rebuild the coastline of Louisiana. The marshes no longer provide as much protection from storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico as they once did. That was made abundantly clear by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The task is huge, perhaps the biggest restoration project ever undertaken. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on a new study that says scientists still don't know how to do it.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

It's not as if the Louisiana wetlands disappeared overnight. Over a century, engineers altered the flow of the Mississippi River, the swamps shrank and then got cut into Swiss cheese to make room for shipping lanes and pipelines and levees. Recent efforts have slowed the erosion, but, after Katrina and Rita, scientists say a major restoration is in order, not just for gators and birds, but to protect a new New Orleans from the next big flood. Trouble is: how to do it. A 30-year multibillion-dollar plan was rejected by the federal government's Office of Management and Budget. They said, `Come back with something smaller.' Now there's a 10-year plan at less than half the price. Louisiana asked the National Research Council in Washington, a scientific think thank, to assess it. Their panel's conclusion? It's not enough, but it's a start. Coastal geologist Jeff Benoit was on the panel.

Mr. JEFF BENOIT (Coastal Geologist): It was too difficult to think about a lot of money being spread out over, you know, 30 years, and how do you really account for that. And I think that's one of the big reasons why this was scaled back to a more near-term effort.

JOYCE: The near-term effort includes things like diverting sediment from the Mississippi River into wetlands. The experts counseled against one project, shoring up the banks of a controversial shipping channel that cuts through the wetlands east of New Orleans, a channel that may be abandoned. But the main quandary, the panel says, is figuring out how to do something that's never been tried before. Dan Walker is with the Research Council.

Mr. DAN WALKER (National Research Council): Coastal erosion is discussed all around the country but this is a fundamentally, you know, an order of magnitude different, more complex, much faster erosion than we've seen. We want there to be an explicit debate about what decision we're making down the road. Nature will make a decision for us. It's a question of having an informed debate over where we want to go.

JOYCE: The panel says what coastal planners need to do is figure out whether big restoration projects across hundreds of miles of swamps will complement each other or simply patch up a few places where the damage is more obvious. The panel also says coastal planners have to make a better case to the nation that it's in the national interest to spend billions on Louisiana wetlands. And they'll have to convince a lot of Louisianans that they'll have to give up something to get wetlands back. Robert Twilley is a coastal scientist at Louisiana State University.

Mr. ROBERT TWILLEY (Coastal Scientist, Louisiana State University): There are going to be people who are gonna feel like they are getting benefits from that process; others are gonna feel like they're being costly to them. There are winners, there are losers, but the social sciences, you know, has to be at the forefront here to establish exactly what are the consequences in every restoration decision, and we have to have an honest dialogue about that.

JOYCE: Congress is now debating how much money to spend on rebuilding Louisiana's coastline. In the meantime, about 10 square miles of the state's wetlands disappear every year. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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