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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The BP spill is just one of the ways people have damaged the Gulf of Mexico. Every year, fertilizer washes down from farms in the Mississippi Valley and creates a giant dead zone at sea. And then there are the wetlands. Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field of land to the Gulf of Mexico every 50 minutes.

In New Orleans today, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus presents the Obama administration's plan to solve that problem.

As part of our ongoing series, The Disappearing Coast, NPR's Debbie Elliott takes a look at what the state hopes to save.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: To see what's disappearing in South Louisiana, you can visit New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward.

(Soundbite of water)

ELLIOTT: Here, Bayou Bienvenue laps at the rocky base of the levee that's intended to protect the neighborhood.

Mr. GARRET GRAVES (Governor's Office of Coastal Activities): This area and coastal Louisiana has been devastated.

ELLIOTT: Garret Graves is 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.

Mr. GRAVES: This area was a much more healthy, productive marsh area. 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.

ELLIOTT: 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 - one that turned out to be the speedway for Katrina's floodwaters.

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 further inland. Making matters worse, the state allowed industry to cut up the marshes with shipping channels and oil and gas pipelines. And this summer something new encroached.

Ms. ANNE MILLING (Founder, Women of the Storm): With Katrina and then BP, boom, it was like a one-two punch.

ELLIOTT: Anne Milling is the founder of Women of the Storm, 13 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.

Ms. MILLING: I think people have looked at us in the past maybe with crooked politics. And you know, whether it's the Longs, or Edwin Edwards goes to jail, we've had a lot of blemishes. I don't think maybe we have touted the positive of Louisiana like we should have.

ELLIOTT: 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.

Mr. R. KING MILLING (Former President, Whitney Bank): If New York state had lost an area the size of Delaware, you don't think we'd have fixed it?

ELLIOTT: The spill has the White House looking at the Gulf Coast with a new sense of urgency. And Louisiana's elected officials 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 billions of dollars.

Republican Congressman Steve Scalise...

Congressman STEVE SCALISE (Republican, Louisiana): Before the money just ends up in Washington in a big grab bag, 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.

Professor OLIVER HOUCK (Tulane University): 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.

ELLIOTT: Oliver Houck is an environmental law professor at Tulane University.

Prof. HOUCK: When of course Louisiana was totally complicit in what oil and gas did here. 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.

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

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

Mr. MARK SCHLEIFATEIN (Times-Picayune Newspaper): 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 is at all understanding of.

ELLIOTT: Yet it provides a significant portion of the nation's oil and 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 to 100 billion dollars to prevent losing the lower third of the state by 2050.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

SHJAPRIO: You can see a map of the projected land lost for the Louisiana's south eastern coast at npr.org.

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SHAPIRO: You're listening to MONRING EDITION from NPR News.

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