The Louisiana Coast: Last Call
7:45 am
Fri May 17, 2013

The Louisiana Coast: Last Call — The Master Plan

Construction of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier in Lake Borgne. The barrier is 1.8 miles long.
Credit Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
The Louisiana Coast: Last Call — The Master Plan

If you’ve been listening and reading along this week, by now you know the consensus among coastal experts is that New Orleans and southeast Louisiana are headed for an early grave before the end of the century.

Because of river levees and damage from oil and gas canals, the wetlands that once protected this city from the Gulf have been reduced by more than half. And now what’s left of this landmass is sinking, at the same time the Gulf is rising due to global warming.

When we asked our experts to rate this area’s vulnerability on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the most dire, the responses were not encouraging.

Yet, for all that blunt realism, each ended on a note of hope.

“I think if 10 is the worst, I would give it an 8 — simply because I want to be optimistic about some things that we can do to make sure that it survives,” says University of Maryland scientist Donald Boesch.

They all agree the area has one last chance for survival: That hope is the state’s Master Plan for the coast.

“You can’t stop this area from subsiding, and you can’t stop the sea from eroding marsh, those are processes that are part of the natural system,” says David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation. “And so I think the Master Plan recognizes that, instead of trying to hold onto what we have, what we need to do is restart the system, get the river building land again, and then strategically hold on to areas such as the barrier islands and key areas of marsh that can hold something together until the river can begin to recover the delta.”

This 40-year, $50 billion initiative would use the sediment and freshwater carried by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to rebuild the sinking deltas around New Orleans and southeast Louisiana.

An international corps of the world’s finest delta scientists and engineers developed the plan. They’ve put their reputations on the line with this prediction: If completed in a timely manner, the Master Plan would allow a portion of southeast Louisiana to keep pace with the current worst-case scenarios for sea level rise — and actually start gaining more land than it’s losing by 2060.

The plan got enthusiastic approval in peer reviews.

“It lays out a series of projects both for restoration and for hurricane risk reduction that are well studied,” says Muth. “They’re implementable — they’re not just pie in the sky ideas — they’ve been tested with the best science that we have, and in many cases they’re based upon known techniques that have been used in smaller-scale projects.”

A man-made canal with an eroding bank near Lake Leary. The cutting of canals often changes the water circulation in marsh systems and can lead to their decline.
Credit Dr. Terry McTigue / NOAA

This Master Plan actually is already underway. There are scores of projects being constructed from small marsh creation efforts to coastline rebuilding.

But to plan and build the multibillion-dollar projects needed on a timeline that will get the job done before the Gulf wins this battle, the state has yet to clear two critical hurdles.

The first is federal funding. Louisiana needs the nation to pick up most of the tab.

Now, Louisiana stands to gain as much as $5 billion from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlements. And starting in 2017 it will be getting as much as $300 million annually from offshore oil and gas royalties.

But that still leaves it well short of the total, and so far Congress has allocated only $1 million.

Those involved say that’s because the rest of the country doesn’t understand what they have at stake in this fight.

A map of Louisiana energy infrastructure and transmission lines.
Credit U.S. Energy Information Administration

“We’re trying to get the message out about how important this place is,” says Muth. “So, let me count the ways: most productive seafood industry in North America; most important energy hub in North America, in terms of not only the extraction, but transport and the processing of those petrochemicals; largest port, by tonnage, in North America, so that the produce of the rest of the country, the grain that feeds the world, coal that’s being exported, petrochemicals moving up and down the river — again, vital to the nation’s economy.”

Would the nation survive the loss of all these things?

“Well, presumably it will,” says Muth. “But it’ll mean many, many, many hundreds of billions of spending on relocation of infrastructure that didn’t need to be spent if we made a relatively modest investment on restoration and protection here in Louisiana.”

The second hurdle is getting the people who live here to understand how quickly this disaster is approaching them — and, just as importantly, what it will mean to future generations.

“If you think about the next 50 years — Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan focuses on the next 50 years — then, sea level is going to continue to go up, and the rates of rise are going to continue to increase,” says Denise Reed, chief scientist at The Water Institute of the Gulf. “But, because we’re only looking 50 years out into the future, we don’t really see the very dramatically higher rates which are expected a little bit further out. So, if you think 50 years into the future, what can we do for coastal Louisiana given this? Well, what we can do is use the sediments that we do have, as best we can, to build up coastal areas we that think have a fighting chance in the years following.”

That job is particularly difficult in a city whose very personality is tied to laissez les bon temps rouler — let the good times roll.

Living inside these mud walls in a town where the party never ends, it’s hard to imagine disaster is lurking just a few years and a couple blocks away.

But it is. And the window is about to close on southeast Louisiana.

“Much of it depends upon things like sea level rise, things like subsidence, and a big one is hurricanes — that’s always the big question every year,” says Garret Graves, Chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. “I remind you, in 2005 the state lost an estimated 200 square miles of our coast as a result of Katrina and Rita, and so that’s always a big factor. I think if we don’t re-plumb the lower river system, or rearrange the way that the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river systems’ resources are utilized, I would estimate that we probably have somewhere in about a five- to eight-year window to make some significant changes in how that’s managed.”

An eight-year window. That’s not very long.

If this Master Plan isn’t humming by then, the party in New Orleans will be coming to an end.

Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.

The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.