Shrinking Coast, Sinking Land Discussed at Louisiana Forum

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the March 24, 2014 edition.)

Speakers at last week's State of the Coast or SOC 2014 conference at the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans balanced grim projections for Louisiana's low-lying areas with possible solutions. SOC is the state's biggest summit on coastal dynamics, and this year's event was the third in a series held every two years. More than 1,050 people registered for the March 18 to 20 meeting and 920 attended, according to the Baton Rouge-based Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a chief SOC sponsor.

The state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, or CPRA, and The Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge were also sponsors.

Last Tuesday, CPRA director Jerome Zeringue kicked off the conference, saying Louisiana has devoted more resources to coastal protection than any state in the nation. Established in 2005, CPRA drew up its first Coastal Master Plan in 2007. That was followed in 2012 by a more ambitious, $50 billion master plan, unanimously approved by the state legislature. As projects under those plans are implemented, CPRA wants to minimize errors and inefficiencies, Zeringue said. But "however beautiful the strategy is, you should occasionally look at the results," he said, quoting Winston Churchill.

Zeringue, known as Zee, welcomed the assembled planners, engineers, local officials, environmentalists and others, and said CPRA stands to benefit from their expertise.

National political consultant and Tulane University professor James Carville was SOC 2014's keynote speaker. On Tuesday, he said the coast is worth protecting no matter how much it costs. He's from the town of Carville in Iberville Parish. "The Dutch spent three to four times their GDP protecting the coast after almost losing their country to flooding in 1953," Carville said. In the United States, however, Congress and the feds have been slow to acknowledge serious threats to our shores. "Washington built the levees," but didn't care what happened to the land-building river sediment that now washes into the Gulf, he said.

Louisiana can share what it's learning about sea level rise with the rest of the world, Carville said. The 2.5 million people living in south Louisiana could move above Interstates 10 or 12, he said, adding that he plans to stay in New Orleans. "But try moving the residents of Lagos, Bangkok and Mumbai" from their coasts, he said. The port city of Lagos contains 21 million people, greater Bangkok has over 14 million while Mumbai is home to 18 million.

Long after Louisiana's oil and gas are gone, "our expertise in water and how people live with it will pay off in ways you can't imagine," Carville predicted. People will always need water. Early civilizations lived near two rivers in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and suffered from flooding, he said. "They'll replace fossil fuels but they'll never think of a substitute for water," he said.

"Dallas is a prosperous city and Denver is a gorgeous place," Carville said. "But you can't have a United States without the Mississippi River" to move goods to domestic and export markets.

At a workshop Tuesday on building resilience, Tim Osborn, a Lafayette, La.-based scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Coastal Survey, said sea level rise, along with subsidence--or ground settling and sinking--and land being starved of sediment have left coastal parishes more vulnerable to storms. The coast has lost its natural resistance so that even a category zero storm can cause serious flooding. "And we've done so much to encourage this process over the last 150 years," he said.

Looking ahead, "two-thirds of Plaquemines, Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes will be found to be at or below sea level," Osborn said. Though much of Terrebonne is at risk, it's one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation. "Ninety-two percent of Terrebonne Parish is too wet or low to allow any community to live on it," he said.

As for New Orleans, "Thomas Jefferson called it the Island of Orleans" more than 200 years ago, Osborn said. A cold front in January left Lakeshore Drive under water, he noted.

Tuesday's luncheon speaker, CPRA deputy executive director Kyle Graham, said the state has spent $970 million on restoration projects in recent years and has more than $488 million in projects under construction now. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, along with its heartaches and headaches, created opportunities, he said. In November, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund announced nearly $68 million for projects in Louisiana. CPRA is waiting for a U.S. Treasury Dept. decision, expected in four or five months, about money to be released under the RESTORE Act, Graham said.

BP has started funding early Natural Resource Damage Assessment projects to return the coast to pre-spill conditions, Graham said. The state's waiting for more NRDA funds. After the 2010 spill, CPRA estimated that post-disaster restoration would take five to ten years. "But sadly, some effects of the Deepwater Horizon will last for decades," he said.

As background, the NFWF's Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund was formed in early 2013 after plea agreements between the U.S. Dept. of Justice and BP and Transocean on certain criminal charges. Louisiana is slated to receive $1.2 billion in total from that fund. Separately, the RESTORE Act directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act and other spill-related civil penalties to Gulf restoration. Transocean settled its CWA liabilities last year, with payments to be spread over several years. BP's CWA fines, meanwhile, will be decided in a U.S. District Court battle in New Orleans that will extend into 2015.

In Tuesday's SOC session on the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, David Waggonner of Waggonner & Ball Architects said the city must learn to live with water by engineering it. The aim of the $2.5 million water plan, funded by a grant from the Disaster Recovery Unit in Louisiana's Office of Community Development and administered by GNO, Inc., is to create lines of defense in coordination with existing levees and the state's 2012 Coastal Master Plan. A Waggonner & Ball-led team of local and international experts developed the water strategy, released last September. Inspired by the Netherlands, the plan incorporates bioswales or storm runoff systems, permeable concrete and water gardens. Streets in Lakeview in New Orleans would be slightly inclined. All of that may sound expensive but the Dutch view their water engineering as investments, not spending, Waggonner said.

New Orleans has long been sinking. Northwest Kenner, for instance, is already 8 feet below sea level. "We're going to have to spend money," Waggonner said. "We can send it to Hartford for insurance payments or we can keep it here."

SOC 2014 included three days of presentations, along with poster sessions, films and information booths. Speakers and other experts said that fulfillment of the state's 2012 Coastal Master Plan could greatly affect life in south Louisiana. To learn more about master plan projects and how they might impact your community, visit on the web.