Most Louisianans can recite our state’s land loss statistics as quickly as they can recall their home addresses — “a football field of land lost every 100 minutes.” And while outsiders may think it strange, this ominous figure has become an increasingly ordinary dinner table discussion. So much so that some have become desensitized to what they're actually saying ― that our land is quite literally vanishing from the map ― a phenomenon that is anything but ordinary.
South Louisiana is experiencing some of the highest rates of land loss anywhere in the world. Specifically, the Barataria Basin in Plaquemines Parish has lost more than 30% of its wetlands since the 1930s, and those losses could double over the next 50 years without major action. The basin was also ground zero for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Its wetlands were some of the most heavily oiled parts of our shoreline, and necessary response activities further weakened an already fragile ecosystem.
Louisianans know we are facing a serious problem; but I believe what isn’t widely understood is why our state is facing this alarming rate of land loss — and what we can do to address it.
In 1927, Louisiana experienced the most catastrophic flooding event to that date. Subsequently, our current levee system was built to prevent this kind of flooding from ever occurring again. And while this levee protection is critical to our communities, it has stifled the Mississippi River and separated it from the marshes it once built.
Prior to being confined to its current path, the river flowed freely, changed course periodically, and deposited sediment and nutrients along the way. Once those sediment deposits were cut off, our coastal wetlands began to diminish rapidly. This problem was only exacerbated over time by the effects of climate change, sea level rise, subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and other man-made interferences.
Scientists and engineers in our state and subject matter experts from around the world have worked for decades to develop a solution that addresses the root cause of our land loss crisis ― lack of sediment delivery to our wetlands. Through engineering with nature, CPRA is working to implement a restoration initiative that will harness the land building capability of the Mississippi River and reconnect it to our basins. Sediment diversions are the culmination of that effort.
The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project represents the largest and most innovative coastal restoration effort ever undertaken by the State of Louisiana, and, if permitted, will be one of the largest green infrastructure projects in U.S. history.
The benefits of the project are immense. The project has the capability to build and sustain an estimated 13,000 to 26,000 acres (about 20 to 40 square miles) of land, depending on the rate of future sea level rise. More wetlands mean more storm surge protection for already vulnerable communities and critical infrastructure that fuels our economy. It also means a more productive and sustainable estuary that will support healthy marshes and habitat for a variety of seafood, fish, and other aquatic life. By comparison, if natural processes are not re-established, the steady and dramatic decline currently underway will continue to worsen.
We recognize, however, that this project is not without its costs. We acknowledge there will be impacts and changes to communities, wildlife, and industries as a result of constructing and operating the project, and the state intends to mitigate those impacts where feasible.
Details of this project’s importance to Louisiana’s future, its many benefits, and its impacts are now available in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s draft Environmental Impact Statement. It provides a thorough, unbiased evaluation of what the project can do for our coast and what it will change.
The Louisiana Deepwater Horizon Trustee Implementation Group, made up of state and federal Natural Resource Trustees, has also published a draft Restoration Plan for public review and comment that provides details on the project’s proposed monitoring, mitigation, and adaptive management plan. I encourage everyone to participate in this public process and provide USACE and the trustees with your feedback so that we can implement the best possible project for our state.
The science is clear — sediment diversions provide the best chance at restoring, building, and protecting sustainable wetlands and creating a more functional ecosystem that will preserve communities, culture, species, and industries.
My hope is that future generations won’t need to be taught land loss statistics. Rather, they’ll be able to enjoy a thriving and sustainable coast in this place we call home.
Chip Kline is chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.