In Louisiana, Rebuilding Mother Nature's Storm Protection: A 'Living Coast' Officials hope an ambitious plan to divert the Mississippi River will revitalize the wetlands that are a natural buffer against storms and floods. Opponents say the changes will upset local habitats.

In Louisiana, Rebuilding Mother Nature's Storm Protection: A 'Living Coast'

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Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana officials have spent $14 billion to rebuild the man-made levee system that protects the city of New Orleans. But that number pales in comparison to the amount of money needed to rebuild Louisiana's original storm protection system, its own coast. Jesse Hardman of member station WWNO reports on how Louisiana officials are looking to the Mississippi River for answers to protect their coast.

JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: In a lush green bayou a little southeast of New Orleans, John Lopez and Howard Callahan are in an airboat and a bit lost.

HOWARD CALLAHAN: What, I have to figure out how to get home now?

HARDMAN: Callahan's a local land manager for this area, known as Breton Basin. He cruises these waterways in his airboat, often helping researchers like John Lopez explore environmental changes in nearby wetlands. The pair head over to a concrete and steel structure that separates the bayou from the nearby Mississippi River.

CALLAHAN: And you can see the pipes jutting up out of the top of the levee. That's the control structures - large alligator there.

HARDMAN: This is the Caernarvon river diversion. It was built in 1991, and it works like a faucet. When it's open, freshwater and some sediment flows back into what was a dying swamp. Diversions are meant to free the river to do its original job as it nears the Gulf of Mexico - spread out sediment, create land and provide freshwater to local habitats. In the last 10 years, thick green vegetation has grown up around the diversion, and Lopez says that's a good thing.

JOHN LOPEZ: This is what Louisiana's supposed to be - you know, not a dying coast, but a living coast.

HARDMAN: Over the past century, man-made canals and natural storm surge pushed too much saltwater into the bayou, killing the swamp. Cypress trees and swamp grasses are what slow hurricanes down and absorb storm surge. New Orleans is technically 80 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. But with a football field of coastal wetlands disappearing every half-hour, that distance is deceptive.

KYLE GRAHAM: Our levee systems aren't designed to have the Gulf of Mexico lapping up against the outside. They're designed to have that amount of marsh or a marsh-protective fringe in between them and the Gulf of Mexico.

HARDMAN: Kyle Graham heads Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He's in charge of a plan - $50 billion over 50 years - to rebuild the coast. The Environmental Defense Fund's Natalie Peyronnin helped draft the idea, which prescribes bigger and deeper diversions than Caernarvon. The alternative, digging up sediment, transporting it and manufacturing land, is too expensive, she says.

NATALIE PEYRONNIN: We know the river built the wetlands, right? We do know that, and we know that the river can rebuild wetlands. And they can rebuild the system on a scale that we can't mechanically do with just dredging.

HARDMAN: Not everybody wants diversions. George Ricks is one of several sport fishermen who's worried river diversions will put them out of business. More freshwater and less saltwater will upset the balance of local habitats that nurture fish, shrimp, oysters and more.

GEORGE RICKS: When you look at the economic impact of losing our fisheries and our seafood industries and our restaurant businesses because of a lack of seafood, it's not that economically feasible to have diversions instead of dredging.

HARDMAN: But diversion advocates say the Gulf of Mexico will eventually push back and restore the brackish water balance. And Natalie Peyronnin says with Louisiana's coast rapidly disappearing, there are bigger issues at hand.

PEYRONNIN: If we don't use the river to build land and maintain this wonderful coast, then people are going to have to move away.

HARDMAN: Louisiana officials hope to begin construction of multiple river diversions in the next few years. They believe this approach will give Louisiana not just its coast back, but its best chance at surviving the next big hurricane. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in New Orleans.

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