Can Louisiana's 'master plan' reverse coastal land loss? 'We don't believe that anymore,' official says _lowres

Photo provided by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service -- This is one of three shoreline protection products being tested along Louisiana's coastline in the area of Vermilion Bay and Weeks Bay. State and federal coastal restoration agencies will test the effectiveness of these measures over the next three years in order to find alternatives to rock placement along the shore.

Louisiana’s master plan to rebuild the coast came with a bold goal: to halt the wetlands loss that sees an average of a football field eroding away from the coast every hour.

The best-case scenario predicted no net loss of wetlands by 2032 and actual land gains by 2042.

But new predictions of increased sea-level rise have scuttled those ambitions.

“We don’t believe that anymore,” said Johnny Bradberry, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities and chairman of the state’s coastal authority.

Karim Balhadjali, deputy chief at the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, explained that the “no net loss” projection depended on forecasts that predicted only moderate levels of sea rise.

Since that 2012 plan was devised, sea levels — pushed by climate change — are projected to be higher than previously expected, making it less likely that the state’s roster of envisioned projects can stop the ongoing land loss.

Although the possibility of being able eventually to reach a point where wetlands losses and gains could be equalized was big news in 2012, the fact that it’s no longer the case doesn’t surprise many environmentalists.

David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Restoration Program, noted that the less optimistic predictions in the master plan didn’t promise a net gain in coastal land.

“Obviously, it’s become clearer five years since the master plan that the projected sea level rise has become worse,” Muth said. “It really comes as no surprise.”

Land will be built under the plan, he said; it just won’t be enough to keep up with the rising seas.

The 50-year, $50 billion master plan envisions building back the estuaries and wetlands along Louisiana’s coast through sediment diversions and marsh creation, as well as paying for levees and other projects.

That $50 billion price tag also is likely to increase with the new 2017 master plan, Bradberry said, in part reflecting changing conditions along the coast like the more dire forecasts for sea-level rise.

“I’m encouraged the state is already, with the 2017 plan, having a realistic discussion of what the possibilities are,” Muth said. “We have to be prepared for some pretty disturbing news about what is possible.”

That doesn’t mean pursuing coastal restoration and protection work is pointless. Preserving the marshes along the coast is critical, for they provide important defenses against tropical storms, absorbing surge and reducing flooding.

“We still can get the system building land while, at the same time, facing the fact that some of what we have now will disappear,” Muth said. “We have to figure out what we can do so we can be here in 50 years.”

Part of the beauty of having a master plan that is updated every five years is that new information can be fed into the decisions that are made, leaders of coastal organizations said.

“It lets you reassess current conditions, and those conditions are not always optimistic,” said Simone Theriot Maloz, executive director of Restore or Retreat.

The bright side is that the state now has a better idea of the financial future for coastal issues, as well as years of advances in the science of how to better do coastal projects.

In addition, one of the things the state is focusing on at this time is what are called “non-structural” projects, which might not directly involve levees or floodwalls. These types of projects include things like the elevation of homes and businesses, as well as possible relocations to help keep people safer as coastal Louisiana continues to shrink.

Jacques Hebert, spokesman for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, said a lot of work can still be done to prevent the worst-case scenario of continued erosion that leads the Gulf of Mexico up to the doorstep of cities like New Orleans, Houma and Morgan City.

“Our perspective is it’s not a time to slow down the master plan; it’s time to accelerate it,” Hebert said. “It will do a lot of good in protecting a lot of communities across the coast and industry and wildlife.”

Although the state’s footprint will be smaller in the future, the goals of the coastal protection and restoration program remain the same, said John Lopez, coastal program coordinator at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. The bottom line is to find a way to sustain the culture and economy of south Louisiana and slow down coastal land loss as much as possible, he said.

Right now, scientists can’t see how to get that land loss reduction down to zero, Lopez said. However, he finds hope in the fact that science evolves so quickly these days that there’s no telling what the future could hold.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.