The High Price of Sinking into the Ocean
Recently, I took a boat tour through the Barataria Basin outside the small town of Jean Laffite, not far from New Orleans. The area is not much changed from the days when it was inhabited by its namesake, pirate Jean Laffite, in the early 19th century: a fishing community where generation after generation grows up on the water. People here don’t want things to change—but change is creeping up and seeping in.
Change, in this case, is water, and a lot of it. As we reached the end of the navigational canal and headed into the Barataria Reserve I was expecting a swampy topography with canals, inlets, and islands. What I saw instead was open water stretching almost to the horizon.
Having lived in Louisiana most of my adult life, I’m familiar with its wetlands, and the mounting anxiety that we’re losing them for good. When I first moved to the state, I lived in another fishing community, St. Bernard Parish, just outside of New Orleans. On weekends, I would drive outside of the levee protection area to the neighboring town of Delacroix to hop on a boat with friends. On the way, I’d pass miles of eerie, dead cypress forests. What had once stood as storm surge protection for the parish (and an iconic vision of Louisiana for visitors) was now just rows and rows of stark white stumps stretching up to the sky. Once while standing outside of a gas station looking out at the lifeless forest, an older man pumping gas next to me said, “Nothing will ever grow there again. There’s too much salt in the water now.” And he was right —years of human intervention and natural erosion had upset the balance of nature in St. Bernard. Water from the Gulf of Mexico was coming up fast and tainting the wetlands’ ecosystem.
Nearly a decade later in Jean Laffite, once my guide knew I was local and interested in hearing his story, he spent the rest of the tour showing my group (sorry guys!) how much things have changed in the Barataria. He ended the trip by taking me to see the markers. Every year, he said, the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies came out and placed markers where the land stopped and the water started. Over time, the old markers got farther and farther away from the land. Back on dry ground, I tried to explain what we’d seen to the newest Louisiana transplant in the group, but there’s no easy way to say it: Louisiana is disappearing.
Between 1932 and 2016, 2,006 square miles of wetlands disappeared from Louisiana’s coastal parishes, according to U.S. Geological Research Study data. Not only do the wetlands provide a habitat for more than 33 percent of the nation’s threatened and endangered species, but they’re also a way of life for an entire culture dependent on the state’s natural ecosystems for their lifestyle and livelihood.
Louisiana’s economic success is vital for the U.S. economy. The state supplies around 20 percent of all the nation’s oil and gas, while operating as a supply point for 90 percent of offshore drilling vessels in the Gulf Coast, according to The Lens. Port Fourchon on the southern coast of Louisiana is currently the only port in the nation able to handle supertankers, receiving up to 2 million barrels per day. Oil and gas royalties are a major source of U.S. Department of Treasury revenue (second only to income tax), according to The Lens. A Department of Homeland Security study found that a mere 90-day foreclosure of Port Fourchon would lead to a $7.8 billion loss in gross domestic product.
Outside the oil and gas industry, the state holds nearly 30 percent of the commercial fishing landings in the nation, according to the advocacy group Restore the Mississippi River Delta. Through the Mississippi River, the state connects the U.S. with the rest of the world at three key ports: St. Charles, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. More than $100 billion worth of commodities pass through Louisiana ports every year, according to the group.
On the state level, most jobs rely on oil and gas, tourism, shipping, or commercial fishing in some way. As wetlands disappear and water levels rise, many of those jobs are at risk. For example, while Louisiana’s energy industry has been in a slump for years, it still employs 44,580 people throughout 63 of the state’s 64 parishes, according to an industry trade association report. Coastal wetland erosion reduces natural storm surge protection, leaving several key oil and gas facilities along the Gulf vulnerable to flooding and damage, which can in turn cause facilities to shut down and workers to be laid off.
The fishing industry faces danger from encroaching saltwater. As saltwater seeps into fresh or brackish waters inland, fish and crustacean populations struggle to survive and reproduce in the changing atmosphere, making for smaller and smaller seafood harvests. Take the blue crab. Around 45 million pounds of blue crabs are harvested in Louisiana annually, but due to a spate of environmental challenges, including wetland loss, they are now subject to periodic fishing bans.
And then there’s tourism. In 2016, 46.7 million people visited the state, spending $16.8 billion and generating $1.04 billion in tax revenue, according to the Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. But the industry faces two hurdles. For one, many tourism companies rely on thriving wetlands to give swamp tours, chartered fishing excursions, and nature hikes. But there’s a bigger statewide threat looming. The grasses and trees like the iconic cypress that naturally grow in the wetlands also act as a barrier that protects the land (and the people) from the massive waves and wind caused by hurricanes. Without that protection, Gulf Coast cities like New Orleans are more vulnerable to storms and subsequent economic damage. Even on a relatively small scale, hurricanes can grind the tourism industry to a halt, with damage taking weeks or even months to repair, leaving businesses shuttered, tourists miles away from Bourbon Street, and members of the area’s massive service industry facing layoffs. Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 storm and the last major hurricane to hit Louisiana, damaged 59,000 homes and did an estimate $2 billion in total damage statewide (including offshore facilities), according to FEMA.
Millions of people are also at risk of losing their homes or having to move inland as the swampy coastal region of the state disappears. But coming up with the solution isn’t easy.
Louisiana faces a trifecta of problems in restoring its dwindling wetlands. First, there’s the oil and gas industry. While petroleum and gas production accounts for a Scrooge McDuck-level of revenue for the state, it has also created serious and enduring environmental issues.
In order to move the oil, miles and miles of pipelines were placed underground while canals were dug above ground to accommodate transportation for the energy and shipping industries. And while those canals and pipelines are logistical keys to keeping the oil industry running, they had deep consequences for the natural world.
“Canals are physically erosive,” says Alexander S. Kolker, Ph.D, a coastal scientist and associate professor at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and adjunct professor at Tulane University. “Along the Mississippi Delta, there are a lot of areas of freshwater marshes. When the canals were cut in, saltwater was able to intrude into those marshes, which killed off the plant life.” As the plant life started to die, areas around the canals became more prone to erosion. Plant roots help trap sediment and keep it from pushing down stream. With fewer roots to support the system, sediment washes out much faster.
A good example of the destructive power of man-made canals is the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, a 76-mile long artificial canal originally dug to create a quicker shipping route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Port of New Orleans and not-so-affectionally known to locals as Mister Go. Creating the channel meant converting 43 square miles of wetlands into open water, bringing saltwater all the way up to New Orleans. The canal destroyed cypress forests across multiple parishes, created a dead zone in Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans, and eventually impacted 966 square miles of natural habitat, according to the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
Problem two is ground subsidence, the gradual sinking or caving in of land. “The sediment in much of Louisiana still needs time to settle and consolidate into its final form, a process that leads to land mass compacting and lowering,” says Christopher Esposito, Ph.D., research scientist with The Water Institute of the Gulf who studies subsidence and sedimentation.
Measuring the age of sediment, or even determining why subsidence happens, can be difficult because most of the earth’s upper crust existed long before mankind did, but we do know that Louisiana’s sediment is much younger than other parts of the nation. “If you were to stand on a mountain top in Colorado, you’d be standing on a rock that was lifted out of the ground something like 60 million years ago. But if you’re standing in New Orleans, you’re standing on something that is probably less than 3,500 years old,” says Esposito, meaning it’s still got a few eons to settle in.
Even a relatively small compaction can have a big impact on a low-lying coastal area like Louisiana. “Just a little bit of compaction can flood large areas,” says Esposito.
Which brings us to problem three: Louisiana already sits below sea level and sea levels are rising globally. As sea levels rise, so does the risk of flooding. Rising water levels and sinking ground mean more flooding and more saltwater intrusion into delicately balanced wetland ecosystems. For Louisiana, the global problem of rising sea levels means “adaptation at best, and honestly in some cases, relocation,” says Kolker.
How did we get here?
Barataria Bay and St. Bernard Parish are far from the only areas already feeling the impact. The Isle de Jean Charles, a narrow island in the bayous of South Terrebonne Parish, was home to a small, thriving, predominately Native American community. Since 1955, the community has lost 98 percent of the land surrounding their homes. Once it was clear the loss was rapid and unrelenting, the state stepped in, buying a 515-acre tract farther north in the parish, and began relocating residents, many of whom left behind homes and businesses they lived and worked in for generations.
During our interview, Kolker looked out his window at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, about 30 miles away from Isle de Jean Charles, and noticed that the parking lot was flooding. That may not seem so surprising, but it was a bright, sunny spring day without a cloud in the sky. And while LUMCON, a scientific research center serving more than two dozen member institutions, is located on a thin strip of land in Terrebonne Parish and is therefore used to some flooding, it should take more than a wind change. But it doesn’t lately. “I’ve seen the flooding go from about 12 times a year in the early 2000s to 50 times a year today just in my parking lot,” Kolker said.
Nearby, the entire town of Chauvin is suffering. As the water levels rise, the community shrinks. “Chauvin has been slowly losing people over the last 50 years,” says Kolker. “With all the flooding, it’s become a difficult place to live. Businesses have closed. Schools have closed.” Since 2000, the population in Chauvin decreased by 4.6 percent. Currently, the town has a higher than average unemployment rate of 7.7 percent with negative job growth, according to Sperling’s Best Places, a site which tracks economic statistics of locations nationwide.
Thankfully, state officials have learned a lot about what causes wetland loss over the years and some of the worst offenders have been stopped or slowed. Canal production has subsided, due in no small part to tighter regulations like the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and lobbying from restoration and preservation groups.
“Oddly, in a way we’re in a little bit of a lull as far as wetland loss right now. It was much worse in the starting in the 1950s and peaking in the late ‘70s. That was really when land loss factors were at their greatest; onshore gas production was high and a lot of navigational canals were being dug. Since the oil bust in the ‘80s, both of those have subsided substantially,” says Kolker.
But while that’s helped, it hasn’t completely stopped land loss or done anything to reverse the damage. For that, the state legislature passed a law in the wake of Hurricane Katrina requiring a “master plan” for wetland loss prevention and restoration be created every five years. While Kolker considers the first iterations a bit of a trial run that overlooked some key areas, he’s hopeful about the current master plan.
The plan, which stretches across 50 years and aims to both restore land loss and mitigate factors like sea level rise and natural erosion, has been approved by two governors on both sides of the political fence and voted-in by 100 percent of the latest legislature, according to Kolker.
Part of the plan includes diverting sediment from the Mississippi River. In the past, levees were placed along the Mississippi to reduce flood risk, but the massive concrete structures created a problem: sediment from the river’s flow couldn’t pass naturally to the nearby wetlands. To begin reversing this, the plan proposes creating underground diversions below the existing levees that essentially unblock the river and restart the flow of sediment, rebuilding soil levels in the nearby wetlands.
The process has already been tested in some areas with marked success. “The areas that were receiving river sediments were more resilient to erosion. Meaning there’s reason to think that we can rebuild the land,” says Kolker.
In other areas particularly prone to flooding, the answer may lie in manmade land. According to Esposito, much of preventing flooding along the coastal wetlands comes down to sediment. If the lost sediment can be replaced, essentially creating a new barrier, the risk of flooding will lessen. To get the job done, the state often relies on dredging—scooping out the bed of an area of water farther inland and relocating that soil to the eroding location. In some places, Esposito says dredging has been one of the most effective tools for rebuilding wetlands, but it comes at a high price. And since dredging will only add a small area of land at a time, using the process again and again isn’t always cost effective.
Paying for these promising but expensive abatement measures will likely be a continued challenge. Through settlements from the BP oil spill in 2010, the state received a large cash infusion, which was directed almost entirely to wetland and coastal restoration.
“The state received about $7 billion overall in settlements,” says Kolker. “That is about enough to handle the first 15 years of the 50-year plan with half going toward restoration and half going toward risk protection.”
The plan’s success might be the state’s best hope for economic stability. A recent study by Louisiana State University found that continued wetland loss could result in a $3.6 billion loss among homes, businesses, and infrastructure in the next 50 years. Areas like New Orleans face the biggest risk, with a potential for $1.7 billion in infrastructure replacement and $1.7 billion in business disruptions.
Southern Louisiana’s residents don’t need an economic impact study to show them what will happen if coastal wetlands continue to die off. They’ve seen the damage done in less than a generation. Back on my tour of Barataria, our guide spent the two hours pointing out where inlets had once been the “perfect spot to fish off” or “my favorite spot to hang out in high school.” But to me these sunken spots were invisible—all I could see was open water.