It’s a grim message Louisianans hear frequently: Our coast is vanishing, threatening the future of coastal communities and even New Orleans. A recent study from Tulane University professor Torbjörn Törnqvist amplified this message, generating sobering headlines calling the loss of our coast inevitable, and with it, our existence here.
What the headlines didn’t indicate is that the study’s projections of sea level rise and subsidence are accounted for in Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, and that we have a window of opportunity to avoid this worst-case scenario.
There is no going back to yesterday’s coast or even keeping today’s coast. Louisianans recognize this, and 98% of voters still want leaders to work to maintain as much coastal wetlands as possible.
We can still have a coast that is productive and allows us to live here for a long time. Unlike other coastal regions, Louisiana has the Mississippi River and its 127 million tons of annual sediment to use to maintain our wetlands.
This study reiterates what scientists have said for nearly half a century — we must build sediment diversions before it’s too late. In the years ahead, the state of Louisiana will construct two sediment diversions on either side of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish to build and maintain tens of thousands of acres of wetlands to protect us from storms and sea level rise.
The state is working harder than ever to get projects like these built. The Legislature unanimously approved the Coastal Annual Plan, funding $1 billion annually in coastal projects over the next three years. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan guides this work and is updated every six years to account for new science.
Our coastal challenges are real and complex, and Louisiana is constrained by time and funding. Guided by science and data, including from our world-class sea level rise monitoring system, state officials have proven they can make wise investments for the long-term. The state recently decided not to restore East Timbalier Island after recognizing it was too far gone and investments could be better made elsewhere.
To give more places a fighting chance against the encroaching Gulf of Mexico, we must also do everything in our power to limit the rate of sea level rise by reducing carbon emissions globally and in Louisiana. Earlier this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced his commitment to the formation of a Climate Initiatives Task Force to begin exploring efforts to reduce in-state carbon emissions.
We must be realistic, knowing that not every place can be saved, and work with those communities, building on the foundation of programs like LASAFE, to help them create a safer, more prosperous and equitable future.
Louisiana has to throw everything it can at this fight, including investing in emerging technologies to find innovative solutions for tackling these challenges over time.
This isn’t the first time people have rushed to discount New Orleans and coastal Louisiana, and it likely won’t be the last. As we approach the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a moment that pushed our region to the brink, I’m reminded of the incredible strength and resolve of the people of this region who overcame not just the impacts of the storm but also the loud calls by some too eager to tell us to give up.
Now is not the time to give up, but to fight to restore the coast that protects us and allows us to live here. That means getting and staying involved and holding our leaders accountable for urgent action. We must fight like our future depends on it because, in this case, it truly does.
John Lopez, Ph.D. is the director of Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s Coast & Community Program and a coastal scientist for Restore the Mississippi River Delta.