State Builds Barrier Islands To Protect, If Even For A Short Time

Apr 4, 2018

Coastal scientists are almost finished rebuilding a barrier island that has been washing away for years. It’s one of several island projects in the state’s Coastal Master Plan. They’re big projects that state officials have planned for a long time, but only recently got money for.

It’s a beautiful day on the beach — the sky is bright blue, and beige sand gleams in the sun. But construction makes it hard to hear typical shoreline noises, like squawking birds and crashing waves. A mix of sand and water is being pumped from a waist-high, rust-colored pipe.

It starts 13 miles away at a former island now underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, and it ends on this remote beach. Whiskey Island is offshore of Cocodrie, a fishing village in Terrebonne Parish.

Project manager Brad Miller spends a lot of time out here. He surveys the massive pipes, which add sand to the island every day. “On a good day on this job they’ll pump almost 60,000 cubic yards of sediment a day,” he says. That’s enough to fill a football field about three stories high.

Whiskey Island had washed away to just a sliver of beachfront. By this summer, it will be about 1,000 acres, valuable new land in a part of Louisiana that’s quickly disappearing.

It’s never going to be a tourist destination, with tiki bars or rental cottages, but Miller says the state will benefit in other ways.

Barrier island projects like this are a major part of the state’s Coastal Master Plan, the $50-billion blueprint for fighting land loss.

"The more marsh and the more islands you have, the longer it takes that water to get to the levees," says Miller. The levees protect the people, and the islands protect the levees.

Pipes pump out 70,000 cubic yards of sand and water a day to restore Whiskey Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 18 miles south of Cocodrie in Terrebonne Parish.
Credit Della Hasselle / The Lens

Coastal planners have long wanted to restore some of those islands. But there hasn’t been much money to do it, until now. The state is getting $5 billion from BP to restore natural resources after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Coastal scientist Darrin Lee says the islands are critical for protecting areas further inland, even as far away as Houma, especially during hurricanes.

"Studies show that without these barrier islands in place, you would have much greater and more energetic waves impacting the coastal communities and the wetlands," says Lee. "They provide that first line of defense."

The problem is — they wash away. They generally last 20 years before sinking into the Gulf. The state knows that, and plans to periodically rebuild them.

Ray Lehmann thinks it's all a waste of money. He's an expert in environmental finance for a conservative public policy group called R Street.

"Rebuilding dunes and doing beach renourishment — at the margin it can have some impact on preventing major storm loss, but it's relatively minor and it is really not an effective use of money,” says Lehmann.

The state will pay $118 million to rebuild Whiskey Island. Lehmann says that money could be better spent,

"We think a better approach is to get used to the fact that sea level rise is real and erosion is unavoidable." He says the state could rebuild wetlands further inland, or move people out of harm's way.

President of Terrebonne Parish, Gordy Dove, disagrees. Whiskey Island will act as a speed bump for storms, and it will also cut down on saltwater that seeps into the wetlands and kills them.

Dove says that will mean healthier bays and better fishing for people defined by their love of seafood.

"People live down the bayous, they want to stay down the bayous," he says.

After years of planning and construction, the island will finally be finished this summer.

"It’s great to see it coming to a finish," says Dove.

But scientists say southern Terrebonne will continue to disintegrate, even if restoration projects work as planned. Bayous will widen, marshes will become lakes, and there will be more open water between this spit of sand and the communities further north.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Lens. 

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.