We Must Act Quickly to Save Louisiana's Coast
Imagine if your state was suffering the world’s highest rate of land loss, with coastal wetlands rapidly disappearing, leaving communities more vulnerable to large storms – all the while facing the start of another hurricane season projected to be more active than average.
This is the current state of affairs in Louisiana, where every hour a football field of land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. These wetlands that once provided a significant buffer against hurricanes and storm surge for the state’s coastal cities, small communities and ecologically and economically productive marshes are now gone or going.
The good news is there are solutions that are ready to go. Extensive research, design and legislative support have all gone into Louisiana’s 2017 Coastal Master Plan – an innovative blueprint for the next 50 years of restoration and protection that was just unanimously approved by the state legislature.
The cornerstone projects in the master plan are two sediment diversion projects that effectively harness the land-building power of the Mississippi River to strategically send silt, sand and fresh water from the river into its delta – a controlled effort to recreate what the river once did naturally.
With an approved plan in place and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement finalized, we’ve got both a roadmap to follow and some resources to get projects going. The opportunity now is to rebuild and sustain desperately needed coastal wetlands.
The problem is, that even despite all of that work, the current federal permitting timeline would not allow the first sediment diversion – called Mid-Barataria – to begin construction for nearly five more years.
For coastal Louisiana, every day of delay jeopardizes the communities, industries and wildlife that rely on healthy wetlands for their very existence. Extensions of this magnitude in the project construction timeline are unacceptable.
For coastal Louisiana, every day of delay jeopardizes the communities, industries and wildlife that rely on healthy wetlands for their very existence.
Louisiana’s Barataria and Breton Sound basins could collectively lose 698 square miles in the next 50 years — 10 times the size of Washington, D.C. And that’s not even the worst-case scenario predicted in some of the modeling.
And this is not just a local issue. Simply put, coastal Louisiana’s economy is essential to our nation’s economy. The area feeds and fuels the nation. Lost wetlands endanger the Port of New Orleans, which is responsible for one-fifth of all waterborne commerce in the nation.
Louisiana is home to a world-renowned seafood industry and world-class recreational fishing. It supports thriving tourism, immense energy production and provides billions of dollars in natural infrastructure.
We need leaders in Washington to help accelerate the Mid-Barataria project.
While federal agencies must comply with the law in project review and permitting, we call upon federal officials to consolidate the proposed permitting timeline through interagency coordination and other efficiencies and advance this important project as efficiently as possible.
The Walton Family Foundation has experience convening business and environmental interests to create conservation solutions that make economic sense. The National Wildlife Federation and our state affiliates have a long history of working with diverse stakeholders to restore degraded habitat in coastal Louisiana and across America. Together, and with other national and local partners, we stand ready to work with federal agencies to help advance restoration for the benefit of people and the Gulf coast.
We don’t know how much time we will have before the next Hurricane Katrina. We cannot afford for projects that are well-researched, well-designed and well-vetted by national experts and local stakeholders to be tied up for years in red tape.
Business, conservation and political leaders in Louisiana have done their part. Now we need the federal agencies to do their part, too. By doing so, we will build a more resilient Louisiana and provide a model for natural resource restoration across the nation.
Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Kyle Peterson is the executive director of the Walton Family Foundation.