Punch a hole in the Mississippi River levee? The pros and cons

A group of white pelicans gather near Bay Denesse. Wildlife is more plentiful in the wetlands on the east side of the Mississippi River near Buras according to outdoorsman Chris Macaluso due to the natural breaks in the shoreline, which allow nutrient-rich sediment to replenish the land, as opposed to the west side where levees lead to wetland degradation.

June 1 marked the beginning of hurricane season.

It would have come on the heels of the sixth State of the Coast conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 scientists, industry leaders and elected officials to reflect upon the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and 15th anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We planned to link coastal protection and restoration efforts and to consider how we’re investing to stay safe. This year’s speakers would have included the president of the National Academy of Sciences and political leaders from both parties. It would have been big news for those of us fighting for our future in south Louisiana.

Instead, the coastal news of the past few weeks featured the headline “We’re screwed,” and we read daily about squabbling over lawsuits about oil and gas industry damage to wetlands.

The good news is that the Louisiana Legislature unanimously approved the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority annual plan, the blueprint for advancing coastal restoration and protection projects should funding become available in the next fiscal year.

The point being that there is much we can do to restore and maintain our coast to make us safer. Diverting sediment from the Mississippi River to starving wetlands and doing as much as possible to limit sea level rise by reducing global emissions will be critical.

The level of restoration activity in the coastal sector of Louisiana is at an all-time high, fueled mostly by funding resulting from the Deepwater Horizon settlement. During a recent board meeting — held virtually — the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority reported that there are 36 projects under construction (the most ever at one time) and another 62 in engineering and design and planning stages, despite restrictions warranted by this strange and challenging time.

Wetlands, barrier islands and oyster reefs help keep millions of Louisianians safe from storms. They are critically important as we face hurricane season. And they may offer economic opportunity. The coastal sector has been one of the strongest growth areas in Louisiana’s economy, one of few bright spots in recent years. A recent independent analysis found that the construction of two restoration projects alone — the Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton sediment diversions — will support nearly 4,000 jobs, deliver $56.6 million in revenues to the state and increase regional business sales by $3.1 billion.

Along similar lines, a National Institutes of Building Sciences study found that every $1 invested in disaster mitigation saves $6 in recovery. We can help ourselves by advancing projects and building a diverse workforce. This will drive development along our coast and kick-start the economy.

Coastal officials: Despite alarming research on Louisiana coast, 'we will never give up'

Our conference has been postponed until 2021, but those who live, work and play here — including those in the oil and gas industry and the renewable energy sector — must work together to be adaptive and inventive in the face of challenge. Whether or not there are fans this season in the Superdome, our state will continue to lose one football field worth of wetlands every 100 minutes. They are disappearing into open water, as are the bounty of seafood and other wildlife and storm protection.

It’s not often that an issue has bipartisan support, but addressing our coastal land loss crisis is one such case. We need to continue to work together regardless of role. That is how our state has made progress to date. We must come together to find opportunity amid the pandemic.

Louisiana showed foresight in developing a Coastal Master Plan years ago. It’s based on science, not politics. That is the broad strategy that should guide our Legislature, now and in the future.

Time and again, voters have made it clear that they want elected officials who prioritize flood protection, coastal restoration and coastal funding. We owe it to the people, who have been through too many disasters, to protect them in the future.

Kimberly Davis Reyher is the executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. She can be reached at kimberly.reyher@crcl.org