Coasting to Disaster

As an acclaimed new book spotlights Louisiana's coastal erosion crisis, an unprecedented coalition of industry and environmentalists has banded together to reverse the tide.



In June 1999, the Washington Post offered Washington D.C. writer Mike Tidwell a unique assignment: go to Louisiana and file a story that didn't involve New Orleans. Without hesitation, Tidwell, whose previous books brought him from the grasslands of Zaire to the jungles of Ecuador, steered himself to the bayous.

"It was June 1999, brown shrimp season," he says, speaking by phone from Nashville, where he was addressing a global warming conference. "I had heard the fisherman used the bayous like roads, and I came up with the idea of just hitchhiking along on the boats."

He got more than he bargained for. Tidwell traveled along the bayous and fell in love with the landscape, the people and the food. "Hitchhiking on boats and wandering in the beautiful, lonely wetlands were some of the most satisfying explorations I've ever had," he says. But he found more than a pleasant story about Cajun life -- he found an environmental disaster in the works.

"It was the fishermen themselves who told me about the land loss; I hadn't heard of it before," he says. "First of all, I couldn't believe it. I was appalled that this wonderfully rich culture was threatened by land loss. The land is literally disappearing from underneath people's feet, with potentially catastrophic economic consequences. After I wrote the article I didn't feel I was done."

In his resulting book, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast (Pantheon), Tidwell gives a voice to the activists who are knee-deep in the problem and to the local people who are being directly affected. He supplies all the facts -- every year, 30 square miles of marsh breaks apart and slips into the encroaching Gulf of Mexico, an annual loss of an area bigger than the island of Manhattan -- and he also draws vivid portraits of the people who welcomed him in the Cajun, Vietnamese and Houma Indian coastal communities.

"I was trying to get people to care," he says. "I'm not sure I've met a single person outside of Louisiana in the last four years who knew about the scope of what was happening. I'm very active in the environmental community and I know a lot of environmentalists, but most of them knew more about the drying up of the Aral Sea in Russia, five or six thousand miles away, than they knew about what was happening in Louisiana."

To hear local environmentalists tell it, not enough people in Louisiana understand the problem, either.

Looking out over the wetlands, it can be difficult to grasp the importance of marsh grass, bays and bayous. But if nothing is done, and another 500 to 1,000 square miles of wetlands disappear by 2050, the loss of habitat would devastate the populations of fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs -- and the jobs of commercial fishermen. If we lose the estuaries -- where 30 percent of the nation's seafood is harvested --we'll lose much of the seafood industry, as well. Migratory birds would be in scarce supply. The pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from offshore pumping stations to the mainland would cut through open water instead of today's solid ground. With 25 percent of all oil -- domestic and foreign -- coming through coastal Louisiana by tanker, barge or pipeline, maintenance costs would skyrocket. Collisions and oil spills would be routine.

The nightmare continues: the highways, ports, towns and farms near the coast would be unable to get insurance, would suffer catastrophic storm damage, and might have to be abandoned. Even if people wanted to stay in the coastal towns, the water would be too salty to drink. Finally, without the wetlands to absorb the storm surge brought by hurricanes, 2 million Louisianians would be even more vulnerable to serious flooding, including New Orleanians.

To prevent this scenario, an unlikely coalition has formed: business leaders, environmental groups, oil and gas industrialists, and state and federal agencies. Among the leaders is Roswell "King" Milling, the president of Whitney Bank and the governor-appointed chairman of several committees on coastal Louisiana. Milling says it wasn't difficult to unite typically opposing forces to do battle with the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think it's the uniqueness of this issue that makes it easy for so many institutions and groups to get involved," Milling says. "I suspect there is no environmental issue facing this country that has more interlocking of interests than this one. Not only the environmental concepts, but fishing, navigation, energy -- all of those issues are on the table in regard to this question.

"I think most everyone agrees today on the fundamental causes," Milling says. The Mississippi River levees might protect Louisianians from floods, but they also prevent the sediment carried by the river from replenishing the wetlands. As a result, Milling estimates, about 160 million tons of sediment flow out into the Gulf of Mexico each year. "Without that annual feeding of the marshes, they are just starving to death," he says. Add to that the 10,000 miles of erosion-triggering canals carved through the wetlands by oil and gas companies, and you have the basic recipe for the disappearance of coastal Louisiana.

"We've taken a position that we're not blaming anybody for most of the activity done by the petroleum industry in south Louisiana," Milling says. "Particularly the on-shore activity. It was done in the '30s and '40s and '50s and '60s, and nobody thought about what was happening."

Mark Davis, the executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, agrees that recriminations are useless. "Taking responsibility isn't the same as taking blame. There's a lot of blame to go around. But the question is, will you take responsibility for what will happen next? The oil and gas companies have as much, if not more, at stake than anyone in the business community. They can't afford to let this fail. The real question is how they will behave."

As a hopeful example, Davis points to a pipeline recently built by BP that made a significant effort to avoid wetlands and go under islands, even though it cost several million dollars extra. "They used to just dredge through them," says Davis. The Army Corps of Engineers has gone through a similar change in attitude, says Davis. "The Corps of Engineers has been digging canals and building levees for 100 years. Now you tell them, 'You have a new job, and part of that job is undoing what you did before.' It's a cultural change as much as it is anything else. Now if you call up the Corps of Engineers, they'll tell you this is one of their top priorities."

"We are very late in coming to this problem," says Milling. "Everything's got to be done in an expedited fashion, we cannot proceed on the basis of business as usual." Karen Gautreaux, director of the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities, illustrates this urgency. "In Larose, there's a certain desperation. During the drought the year before last, people around Bayou Lafourche tasted coastal erosion when salt water got into their drinking water. They've been hearing about restoration since the late '80s, but there are cemeteries washing away. There are people who have pictures of cattle grazing in their front yard 40 years ago, and now the front yard is bayou, if the property is still there at all. They're losing their history, their way of life. You cannot work fast enough for them."

A concerted effort was needed. Since 1990, many small-scale marsh and barrier island restoration projects tackled the problem under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act, known as the Breaux Act after Sen. John Breaux, who took the early lead in the issue. "But after five years of working under the Breaux Act," says Davis, "we realized it wasn't all adding up to a solution. What we really insisted on was a bigger approach."

From the Breaux Act, a plan emerged called Coast 2050, which made an attempt to match the scale of the solution to the scale of the problem. Coast 2050 is a strategic master plan for the restoration and rehabilitation of coastal Louisiana. The plan divides the threatened land into four regions and suggests specific projects for sites in each region. Projects include shoreline and canal stabilization, barrier island restoration, reef construction, and most importantly, freshwater diversions, which bring infusions of river water and sediment to the marshes. The most ambitious diversion project is also the most necessary: called the Third Delta Conveyance Channel, it would divert one-third of the Mississippi River just below Donaldsonville and guide the water 95 miles south to Bayou Lafourche. There, the channel would divide in two and deliver the water, sediment and nutrients to the depleted marshes on either side of the bayou, where two new "subdeltas" would gradually form.

The Conveyance Channel is being loudly championed by Restore or Retreat, a nonprofit organization in Thibodaux. Executive Director Lori LeBlanc sees the Conveyance Channel as the best bet to save the coastal communities around her. "It's a very costly, complex problem, and it's a very costly, complex solution," LeBlanc says. "It uses our most valuable resource, the Mississippi River, to replenish the marshes in a controlled manner."

The Coast 2050 plan was completed in 1998, followed by a brief -- and alarming -- lull. "Coast 2050 was a nice document, but it was headed for a shelf," Davis says. "Not one agency had put a single dollar into their budgets for the next year to do anything further. We went to the governor's office and to the White House and said, 'We can't let this happen. It's not just about saving an ecosystem, it's about saving a way of life.'"

This agitation led to the funding of a Corps of Engineers study, called the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) feasibility study, which evaluated the Coast 2050 proposals. All the interested parties are setting their sights on the 2004 Water Resource Development Act, which could provide both authorization to begin implementing projects, and appropriations to fund them. Rep. Billy Tauzin will spearhead the efforts in the House, while Sens. Breaux and Mary Landrieu will oversee the bill in the Senate.

"For years we've been trying to save Louisiana's coast by applying Band-Aids here and there," says Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. "But the patient needs surgery, not Band-Aids."

No matter how irrefutable the need for action, one crucial facet of the plan is still very much up for debate: the money and where it will come from.

"Conservatively," says Johnson, "a comprehensive plan of action will cost $14 billion or more. That's a lot of money, but there's a lot at stake."

Traditionally, state and federal governments evenly split the cost of such projects, but Louisiana state officials hopes the federal government will contribute more. "[The state of Louisiana] cannot pay for this alone, and we cannot be expected to," says Karen Gautreaux. "We want to pay our fair share, but at the same time many of the damages we're suffering are a result of federal policies or projects, like the channeling of the Mississippi River and the construction of canals for oil and gas extraction."

"The grunt work is happening in Washington," Johnson says. "Because this isn't going to happen without federal money. We're hoping for a 35-65 percent split. Given the importance of the wetlands not just to Louisiana, but to the nation, we think that's justified."

Unfortunately, says Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) assistant secretary James "Randy" Hanchey, the timing is far from ideal. "With the economy being what it is, the backlog of these kinds of projects, and the potential war, we'll have a real challenge to get the Congress to commit to something this expensive," he says. "We're not really counting on the Congress authorizing all $14 billion at once. We're hoping to get $10 to $20 million the initial year to start the process. The cost will gradually increase over the course of three to four years."

Allocations would have to continue for 20 to 30 years, with the state providing some portion of the $14 billion total. Hanchey estimates that eventually, the state of Louisiana may have to come up with $100 to $150 million per year. Where will the state find that money? "As of right now, we do not have an answer," Hanchey admits.

One strategy for obtaining funding is to convince lawmakers that the cost of restoration is nothing compared to future cost of lost infrastructure and income. Many sources place the cost of doing nothing at $100 billion in infrastructure costs alone. "We're moving forward, but the problem is the old axiom 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Johnson says. "Very few people in D.C. have ever seen the wetlands, ever been to Louisiana's coast, ever driven down Highway 1. It's difficult to make a case for spending that much money when the members of Congress have never seen the problem."

The local education campaign can be just as frustrating, says Kerry St. Pé, the director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. "We've been in existence over 12 years, we've spent $1 million on education," he says. "Yet there are a lot of people who live in these areas and don't understand what's going on on the other side of those levees. We have to educate our own people, and we still have a long way to go."

St. Pé oversees the area that's been hardest hit. From 1978 to 1990, while most regions of coastal Louisiana were losing one or two square miles per year, the Barataria and Terrebonne hydrologic basins each lost more than 10 square miles per year.

"Sixty-five percent of land loss in the state of Louisiana is occurring in the Barataria-Terrebonne region. We are poised to have one of the largest natural disasters this country has ever seen," St. Pé says grimly. "We're at the point that the land loss is threatening our ability to live here, and that includes New Orleans. If it were anywhere else in the world eroding this fast I'm sure there would be a general outcry."

In August 2002, Gov. Mike Foster kicked off an educational campaign called "America's Wetland," with two broad themes: the wetland's ecological significance and its national significance in terms of energy independence and economic security. Campaign sponsors are again a diverse group, including Shell Oil Co. (which donated $3 million over three years), the New Orleans Saints and Hornets, and numerous businesses and environmental groups.

Says Sidney Coffee, director of communications for the state DNR, "The most memorable part of this campaign was having the president of Shell Oil standing there next to Environmental Defense [at the campaign press conference]. A wonderful coalition is coming together."

With help from Disney and Time for Kids, a division of Time magazine, the campaign hopes to reach the next generation of decision-makers. A group of coastal characters, called the Estuarians, will help upwards of 2.2 million elementary school kids understand the erosion of Louisiana. "They're really cute," Coffee says of the Estuarians. "They look like little Disney characters, and they've got names like Shelly the Starfish, Salty the Shrimp, Peter the Pelican."

Davis calls the crisis "a civics test." He hopes that it will become a defining issue in the upcoming gubernatorial race. "You don't get to be governor of Florida with a neutral position on the Everglades," he says. "You don't get to be governor of Maryland without a position on how to improve Chesapeake Bay. But you can be governor of Louisiana without even mentioning this.

"We're at a fork in the road, and we have to choose a path," Davis says. "Quite frankly, no one in the Army Corps of Engineers or the state Department of Natural Resources is going to make the choice for you. Because these are hard questions: where the money will come from, how to live with the changes."

It's already too late for much of the wetlands: since 1950, 1,500 square miles have vanished. As Bayou Farewell author Mike Tidwell sees it, time's running out. "Y'all are gonna have to abandon New Orleans unless something is done soon," he says, "and it won't be far off in the future, it will be soon."

  • Jim Saah

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