Louisiana is losing 16 square miles of coastline every year due to a combination of human development and rising sea levels. Now, the state has put together a 50-year, $50 billion plan to replace that land.
Back in August, ProPublica and The Lens teamed up to produce an exhaustive report on Louisiana’s disappearing coastline. Authored by ProPublica’s Bob Marshall, the report dropped the stunning news that 2,000 square miles of the state is now underwater. At its current rate, one football field-sized piece of Louisiana becomes part of the Gulf of Mexico every hour.
Recently, Marshall spoke to Steve Curwood, Executive Producer and Host of Living on Earth, about the second part of his Louisiana series, in which the state attempts an unprecedented feat of geoengineering.
As detailed in Marshall’s report, Louisiana is a victim of its own richness: Between 1930 and 1990, the marshland of the Mississippi Delta was redeveloped into canals to allow easier access to its valuable oil reserves. Unfortunately, this man-made alteration of the environment disrupted centuries of natural buildup by sediment deposits. Changing the flow of the rivers has eliminated the soil’s ability to squeeze out moisture, leading to a domino effect wherein wet soil is sinking below the delta, sea water is killing the remaining plants that bind the soil together and sea level rise is exacerbating the whole process.
Louisiana is now home to some of the fastest land loss on the planet, endangering the state’s valuable fisheries as well as swallowing up oil and gas supplies. Marshall explained to Curwood that slurry pipelines are being constructed to essentially pump sediment back into the Delta about 50 to 60 miles from New Orleans. Meanwhile, engineers are attempting to stabilize the shoreline from wave action and storm surges by rebuilding oyster reefs. However, not everything can be saved.
“The last 30 or 40 miles of the river delta is just being given up,” said Marshall, “because it’s sinking at such a fast rate, in some places five feet a century so there’s no hope of really saving those areas, so they’re trying to rebuild these wetlands that are close enough to the city and its suburbs and the smaller communities out there to provide some type of storm surge buffer as well as have a functional fishery.”
If successful – meaning the slurry pipelines work, the reefs can be rebuilt and everything can be done in time – Louisiana could gain more land than it’s lost by 2060. Sea level rise, however, is a major concern.
Unfortunately, Louisiana is getting little help from the federal government or the fossil fuel companies that are partially to blame for this state of affairs.
“Congress back in 2007 authorized about 27 projects that are part of this master plan,” said Marshall, “but they haven’t funded any of them, and of course they haven’t shown any willingness. They’re waiting to see how much money the state can gain from the Deepwater Horizon settlements from BP.”
Regarding the oil and gas companies, the state government wants them to “willingly come to the conclusion that it’s in their self-interest” to rebuild the land.
Curwood aptly pointed out that, “Some would criticize this effort by saying, wait, we spend a lot of money to protect private profits with public dough.”
Marshall agreed that it was a problem for the state. On its own, Louisiana can raise between four and five billion dollars. Without additional funds, the project could die in the next 10 years.