A decade after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated our communities, it’s easy to believe that all is back to normal in New Orleans and on the Louisiana coast: Just walk among the throngs of people at our lively festivals or drive by the newly constructed pumping stations on Lake Pontchartrain.
But take a short trip outside the city along the coast and you’ll see that Louisiana’s biggest problem still remains: The wetlands that are our primary line of defense against future Katrinas and Ritas continue to vanish at an alarming rate of a football field an hour.
As these wetlands disappear, so does the natural protection they provide for millions of coastal residents, our livelihoods and our rich Louisiana culture and natural resources. As leaders of national and local environmental organizations who’ve grown up and live in Louisiana, this isn’t an academic debate: We’ve seen vast swaths of marshes and dozens of islands where we once played and worked vanish in just the last generation.
The good news is that we have the science and technology to repair and bring back our protective coastal wetlands. And the even better news is that we now have a historic, once-in-a-lifetime chance to launch large-scale restoration with money from the $18.7 billion BP settlement for the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.
But now comes the more difficult part — fully funding the most critical projects for sustaining the coast and making sure the money isn’t siphoned off for other state needs. That will require our leaders to defend the coastal fund and ensure the settlement money goes to implementing science-based restoration solutions that have the potential to sustain our region for the long run.
We already have a solid road map for putting the money to work. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana called on the best minds and science from around the globe to develop a coastal master plan for restoring and preserving our coastline. And Congress created the RESTORE Council to fund projects dedicated to coastal restoration from fines and penalties paid by BP and other companies responsible for the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Louisiana already has begun receiving some early BP fines and penalties to pay for restoring coastal wetlands and construction has started on rebuilding barrier islands that weaken wind and wave damage and provide habitats for birds, turtles and other wildlife. Marsh creation projects are being executed to help rebuild lost land. In a place known mostly for losing land, we also are seeing the potential to build land in areas where nature can replenish marshes with sediment.
But we can’t lose sight of what remains to be done and who bears the responsibility for making sure it’s done right.
Louisiana’s leaders need to safeguard the BP settlement money and ensure it is spent on nothing but the best science-based restoration projects as outlined in the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, including those that harness the resources of the Mississippi River to build new wetlands.
The BP agreement may represent the largest environmental settlement in American history, but the money will be parceled out over 15 years — plenty of time for public officials to stray from the intended focus on coastal restoration.
The future of Louisiana and its future generations depends on our leaders using every dime of that money as it was intended: to rebuild Louisiana’s best defenses against storms, floods and oil spills. That should be the mission of all of us and our leaders in the years ahead.
For us, this is personal. Those future generations are our children and grandchildren. How we use our science and this money will determine the kind of Louisiana they will inherit.
Steve Cochran is director of Mississippi River Delta Restoration for the Environmental Defense Fund. Kimberly Reyher is executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Both are members of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Executive Team.