Worry Over Wetlands

The environment and the economy face a crisis in Louisiana’s wetlands.

By Melissa Savage
July/August 2008

For more than 200 years, the wetlands along the coast of Louisiana have been melting into the Gulf of Mexico. Today the area is shrinking at the rate of one football field every 30 minutes.

What people in Louisiana have known for years has only recently started making its way into the consciousness of the rest of the country.

“The people of Louisiana are very aware of the storm protection a healthy wetland can provide,” says Susan Kaderka with the National Wildlife Federation. “Beyond the storm protection, the wetland is home to millions of migratory birds, fish and other animals. Sadly, the wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate.”

It’s not as though the plight of the wetlands has been ignored by everyone. Researchers have long recognized the peril, and federal legislation and conservation projects have tried to grapple with the problem. But it took two devastating hurricanes to focus attention and spur action by lawmakers and others that may finally make a difference—to both the unfolding environmental crisis and the deteriorating state of crucial energy infrastructure.

Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in Louisiana doesn’t stay in Louisiana. The ecosystem that forms the wetlands has tentacles that reach into most of the nation.

The Mississippi River drains water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The watershed stretches from western New York to parts of Montana and south from Minnesota through Louisiana. As the Mississippi flows to the Gulf of Mexico, it takes with it sediment and other natural materials that sustain and create land in the wetlands. Without human interference, the river would naturally flood in spring and summer, providing nourishment to the existing wetlands and depositing new terrain. 

Environment, Economy At Risk
In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded 27,000 square miles and caused $400 million in damage in seven states. In the aftermath, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed a system of levees to offer flood protection to homes, farms and people living in New Orleans. A key unintended consequence of the levees was that the redirection of the river cut off the wetlands from the natural process they needed to survive.

Today, hundreds of coastal restoration projects are underway in the wetlands of Louisiana. Restoration involves a variety of efforts, all intended to stop the dramatic land loss that has occurred since the Mississippi River was redirected and its load of silt sent toward deep water. Generally speaking, the projects focus on reconnecting the river to the delta, removing some channels and other structures, and moving dredge spoils to areas that will bolster wetlands and build up barrier islands. Others include restoring natural coastal habitats so migratory birds and fish are able safely to return to their winter homes.

If the wetlands had been healthy when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, some researchers say, they would have provided a natural barrier and protection to the city of New Orleans. The city would have flooded, but far less damage would have occurred.

But the wetlands weren’t healthy, and disaster played out. The silver lining is renewed attention to the problem. Even that attention, though, will not lead to change without “intervention on the part of the federal government,” says King Milling, president of the America’s WETLAND Foundation.

The foundation, established in 2002, is a group of elected officials, environmentalists, academics, business representatives and government agencies working to raise awareness about the plight of the wetlands. One message the foundation is trying to get across in Louisiana and across the country is that the situation went from bad to worse after the 2005 hurricanes.

“During Rita and Katrina, the coast of Louisiana lost some 200 square miles,” says Sidney Coffee of the foundation. “It was an urgent situation before the storms. Now you can imagine.”

Wetland areas in general are among the most productive habitats on Earth, providing food and shelter for fish, birds and other species. The Gulf Coast wetlands also boast a $1 billion-a-year seafood industry and serve as a recreational area for sportsmen, fishermen and nature lovers.

Energy Powerhouse
But that’s not all that is at stake. For the past 70 years, the Gulf Coast has been crucial to the nation’s energy supply. There are 17 petroleum refineries and more than 180 petrochemical plants producing jet fuel, lubricants and scores of other products that are transported through one of the world’s largest port systems and 35,000 miles of pipeline.

“A third of all the natural gas and oil consumed in this country today comes through Louisiana’s wetlands by tanker, barge or pipeline,” Coffee points out.

Erosion, though, has left the energy infrastructure in danger. Pipelines originally built underground are now sitting in open water—an environment they were not built to withstand. Retrofitting the infrastructure is not a viable option, but something must be done to ensure that the nation’s energy coastline is secure.

The industry also has long confronted a Catch-22—the nation needs the energy produced here, but the infrastructure required cutting thousands of miles of channels through the wetlands that have allowed salt water to flow into fresh water habitats. The subsequent environmental damage has left that very infrastructure vulnerable. Animals, birds, plants and fish that can survive only in fresh water are dying.

Money and Legislation
Over the years, government researchers have studied the area and published reports about the deteriorating situation. Federal legislation has been passed and conservation projects have been undertaken.

But like so many other complicated problems, it comes down to money and a sense of urgency.

“It’s all a balance. Everything that happens on this coast affects the rest of the United States,” says Coffee. “To sustain the kind of 20-year effort we need to restore this coast, it’s going to take money in a steady stream. We can’t be at the whim of Congress to either appropriate funds or not.”

Estimates vary for what restoration will cost, but the high end puts the price tag at a whopping $50 billion to $100 billion to do the job right—fully integrating the environmental restoration with critical levee protection.

Congress passed the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act in 1990. But because the program was not set up to do the massive, large-scale projects necessary to address the land loss, restoration projects in Louisiana over the last 15 years have received only about $33 million to $44 million a year from the federal government. One large-scale restoration project can cost as much as $200 million.

Late in 2005, the Louisiana Legislature held a special session to address the devastation following Katrina and Rita, and passed the Coastal Restoration and Protection Act aimed at consolidating hurricane protection work and coastal restoration projects together under one umbrella.

“Up until that point, work on hurricane protection was coordinated through the Louisiana Department of Transportation and coastal restoration was handled by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources,” says Senator Reggie Dupre, lead author of the legislation. “The two were working often toward similar goals without coordinating efforts.”

Last year, the Legislature approved the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s master plan, the first document to completely incorporate hurricane protection projects with rebuilding the eroding wetlands of Louisiana. The goal is to balance restoration of the ecosystem with protecting communities and infrastructure necessary for the critical economic and energy activities so vital to the entire nation.

Senate President Joel Chaisson emphasizes the point: “Nothing is more important to the future economic well-being of our state, nor the safety of our residents, than the protection of Louisiana’s coastline.”

The billions it will cost over the next 30 to 40 years will be paid partly from energy royalties. In 2006, the federal government agreed to pass along a substantial amount of royalties collected from oil drilling in the area to the nation’s coastal energy producing states. Legislation proposed by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu called for a percentage of offshore royalties from new leases to go to Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. Usually those royalties from drilling in the Gulf beyond state borders go only to the federal government.

The Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act was signed by President Bush in 2007 and, over the next few years, will add $100 million a year for coastal restoration, conservation and protection projects. Long-term, that could amount to as much as $600 million a year.

Even before the federal bill was passed, the citizens of Louisiana overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that dedicates any and all offshore revenues the state would receive to the purpose of coastal restoration and protection.

In addition, the Legislature in 2007 passed a bill dedicating $200 million in budget surplus to coastal restoration projects and this year dedicated yet another $300 million to the state’s efforts.

While the federal legislation holds the promise of a substantial amount of money, the royalty payments will not begin to roll in for about a decade and even then experts say it will not meet the needs.

National Attention
Milling of the America’s WETLAND Foundation says this is going in the right direction: “The deterioration of the Gulf Coast is a national problem and by redirecting revenues generated by offshore oil production, energy producing states can secure their coasts and protect domestic energy production for the future.”

Since the money will not be enough for the long-term work it will take to restore the coastal wetlands, there has been a push to get the issue in front of policymakers in other parts of the country and increase awareness of the importance of the wetlands to the nation’s economy and the energy supply.

Part of that effort involves America’s Energy Coast initiative, a group of government, private and nongovernmental organizations from the four energy producing states in the area—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The coalition, which America’s WETLAND Foundation helped form, aims to get more attention to the environmental and energy problems at a national level.

The group’s goal is to educate the public about the necessary co-existence of energy and ecology in the region and bring the varied interests together to work on solutions to the challenges along the Gulf Coast.

“We can’t think of it in terms of energy sustainability or environmental sustainability. It has to be both,” says Val Marmillion, president of Marmillion+Company, the consulting firm hired to get the word out.  “We need comprehensive solutions. That is why the America’s Energy Coast was started—so we could work together to solve the problem. Energy industry, environmentalists, scientists and policymakers, they all have a seat at the table.”

While there is still much to be done, especially in terms of finding additional funding, the National Wildlife Foundation’s Kaderka says the effort at national awareness is a critical element.

“It is important that the rest of the country recognize that this is an important investment to make and one that will be returned many times over,” she says. “It will take a national commitment to restore the coastal wetlands. The state of Louisiana can’t do it on its own.”

CHECK OUT a Q&A with Sidney Coffee of America’s WETLAND Foundation at www.ncsl.org/magazine.

Mississippi River Drainage Basin
The Mississippi drains a massive area, covering 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The watershed stretches from western New York to parts of Montana and south from Minnesota through Louisiana.

FORUM Seeks National Voice
America’s Energy Coast initiative—the cooperative effort among government, private and nongovernmental organizations from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas—will convene its second annual Leadership Forum just outside of Houston in late July.

The forum will bring together elected officials, industry stakeholders, academic leaders, government officials and national environment organizations to identify what actions can be taken to sustain energy production in the region, while maintaining an environmentally sound landscape.

The culmination of the forum will be the release of the “America’s Energy Coast Accord for a Sustainable Gulf Coast.” The accord will suggest best practices, technology and solutions, and public policy options that will create a sustainable future for the region.

The main goal of the accord is to bring together the four states and strengthen their voice at the national level. It hopes to draw attention nationally to the serious problem facing not only the wetlands, but ultimately the security of 30 percent of the nation’s oil and gas supply.

Women "Storm" Washington
The conversation that Thanksgiving evening in the New Orleans home of Anne Milling, one of the city’s leading activists, was the same as everywhere in 2005: Hurricane Katrina.

“As we talked to folks around the table, many of whom had lost their homes, we realized that not many members of Congress had visited the city. I said, `Why don’t we go and invite them?’ The idea just haunted me,” Milling says.

Milling, whose husband heads the America’s WETLAND Foundation that was so successful in educating the public about the plight of Louisiana’s disappearing coast, thought it over during the holidays.

“On Jan. 10, we pulled together a group of seasoned volunteers, and on Jan. 30, we were in Washington with 130 women of diverse backgrounds, carrying our blue tarp umbrellas,” Milling says.

There was a lot of work to do over a short period of time, including raising the $60,000 for a charter flight. The America’s WETLAND Foundation helped brand the group Women of the Storm, created a website and designed the blue tarp umbrella, reflective of the blue tarps that covered roofs throughout the city.

Diana Pinckley, a New Orleans communication/public relations consultant, remembers getting the phone call from Milling. There was a clear chain of command, with Milling at the top. There were eight team captains, including Pinckley, who led groups of 16 to 18 women.

At 6 a.m. Jan. 30, the charter jet took the women to D.C. for a press conference on the Capitol steps, flanked by Louisiana’s two U.S.  senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, and five of the state’s seven U.S. representatives.

“We marched two-by-two, with our umbrellas raised,” Pinckley says. “Mary Landrieu said when she saw us coming, she thought: ‘The cavalry has arrived.’ ”

The women headed off to call on members of Congress, each group of two having appointments with three or four members or staff, armed with packets of information and invitations to tour the devastated city.

The following April, a delegation of about two dozen members of the House of Representatives came to visit New Orleans, and a trickle of U.S. senators came over time.

Women of the Storm conducted comprehensive land tours, flyovers of the wetlands in National Guard Blackhawk helicopters and held meetings with New Orleans civic and business leaders committed to the city’s recovery.

The 130 Women of the Storm made one other charter flight to Washington in September 2006 and smaller groups made multiple trips to Capitol Hill to give information and lobby. Their efforts and those of others helped push Congress to approve, by a narrow margin, legislation sharing offshore oil royalties with the state.

When the women went to Washington on Jan. 30, 2006—five months after the storm—only 12 U.S. senators and 23 House members had visited New Orleans. As of this summer, nearly three years later, 57 senators and 132 representatives have made the trip.—John Hill

What is Sustainability?
The ongoing discussion surrounding climate change, energy dependence and environmental concerns in general invariably involves the word “sustainability” as part of the conversation. Even America’s WETLAND Foundation and the America’s Energy Coast talk about a “new sustainability” for the coastline.

But what does that mean exactly?

There are several applications of the word. In business, for example, companies make decisions hoping to stay in business for the long term. The word also pops up in conversations about climate change and environmental issues.

It is this definition that the coastline strives for: “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” and environmental issues in Louisiana.

Key Statistics on the Economic and Environmental Issues in Louisiana

  • Five of the 15 largest U.S. ports are in Louisiana.
  • Commercial fishing brings in more than $200 million annually.
  • Recreational fishing brings in between $895 million and $1.2 billion annually.
  • Coastal restoration projects from 1986 to 2007 included construction of 46 state-funded projects and 81 federally funded projects along with 415 vegetation planting programs.

Source: Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.


Melissa Savage covers environment and natural resources issues at NCSL