The people of Louisiana’s coast have lived through more than most over the last 15 years — from hurricanes Katrina and Rita (among others) to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the current pandemic that is gripping the nation. Through all of that adversity, the region has proven time and again just how resilient and strong its communities are. Despite past and future challenges, there are very real reasons to be both hopeful and to take decisive action in service of the region’s long-term future.
In the decade since the oil spill, the Walton Family Foundation has invested roughly $100 million in coastal restoration efforts — and that money has been leveraged for more than $8 billion in resources for the largest funded environmental restoration programs on the planet. We do not take these investments lightly. We believe the scientists and leaders who have developed Louisiana’s coastal Master Plan when they say that there is a distinct window of time — the years we are living in right now — to take action that can, and will, help rebuild enough of the land that has been lost along the coast to give the region a future.
Still, we need to move faster to jumpstart this work. The real opportunity to start rebuilding land is to reconnect the Mississippi River to coastal wetlands. With that connection made, the river will once again nourish the existing wetlands with sediment — or soil carried by the river water — which will allow new land to grow and flourish where wetlands have disappeared. Specifically, we need to grow support for the Mid-Breton and Mid-Barataria sediment diversions so that they move forward. Scientists believe that if we do this now, there is enough time to establish wetlands that will be able to keep pace with climate change and sea level rise in the years to come.
This approach will require some changes in how we view and live with the coast. We have to think about the coast as a dynamic system that is always evolving and creating and recreating natural balance. It will require new navigation options that help ships move into and out of ports without letting saltwater intrude or freshwater and sediment escape. We’ll need to rebuild natural barriers to buffer communities from hurricane surges and rising seas; maintain healthy estuaries by restoring the natural balance between fresh and saltwater; and limit wetland loss caused by human activities, relying whenever possible on natural solutions like oyster reefs.
The good news is that these solutions do not rely on technology that is beyond our reach, or on vast sums of money that are beyond our capacity. Instead, they represent a commonsense, practical approach that is within our means, but requires all of us — citizens, leaders, and elected officials — to commit to our shared sustainable future. In addition, this work will help to drive local economies and create jobs. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, over the next 10 years, 10,500 jobs and $618 million in wages will be supported annually by Louisiana’s coastal program alone.
None of this is necessarily easy to do — but, the people, communities, and businesses of Louisiana’s coast have proven time and again they are up to meeting big challenges. The communities and businesses here are all quite literally living proof that the people of Louisiana are resilient and can do big things.
We have an opportunity to remake and reestablish the Louisiana coast into the kind of thriving human and natural ecosystem that we have not seen for centuries, and we have a responsibility to begin today. It’s time to show the world a new Louisiana — one that is innovative and sustainable, and serves as a catalyst for change.
Moira Mcdonald is the director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment program.