Louisiana's coastal ecosystem is an important biological and economic wellspring that faces a grim future without major changes in policies and practices in the Mississippi River Delta, R. King Milling, a wetlands advocate, said during a September 5 Public Affairs Forum. The event was held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's New Orleans Branch.
"For those who live in the region, the presence and diversity of this ecosystem has been an essential underpinning of our very existence," said Milling, chairman of America's Wetland Foundation and the Louisiana Governor's Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration, and Conservation. "It has protected close to 2 million people who reside within the delta, and their ability to continue to live and work within the confines of the delta is at greater risk every day."
Over the past 80 years, Louisiana has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of its wetlands, an area roughly the size of Delaware, Milling pointed out. That destruction has resulted primarily from human activities, including extensive levee construction along the Mississippi River, oil and gas exploration, and dredging and cutting canals. Damage to the coastal ecosystem, he said, is a threat to the environment, the economy, and the culture of Louisiana and the nation.
There is hope, Milling assured the audience of 80 business and community leaders. Optimism for the coast's future is rooted mainly in massive public-sector initiatives, notably Louisiana's Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, which took effect in May 2012. The 50-year, $50 billion program calls for a series of projects that include restoring barrier islands and mimicking the Mississippi River's natural pattern of depositing sediment, freshwater, and nutrients back into the ecosystem, Milling explained.
"There are challenges to the execution and completion of this venture. It would be naive to suggest to the contrary," he acknowledged. Funding and working with federal agencies, the lifelong New Orleanian suggested, are foremost among those challenges. Much of the money for early projects, Milling said, will likely come from settlements with BP related to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
Problems began with well-intentioned policy
During his presentation, Milling led the audience through a brief history of the Mississippi Delta and its gradual destruction. He traced the basic science behind the formation of the world's seventh largest river delta, the causes of wetlands loss, and plans to preserve and restore Louisiana's coastal environment.
This slow-forming crisis began innocently enough. After the Mississippi River flood of 1927 killed some 250 people and submerged nearly 25,000 square miles of land, the United States built a levee system to confine the river and prevent future flooding. The flooding stopped, but so too did the distribution of the critical building blocks of the delta: freshwater sediment, mud, and clay.
Thus began the "staggering loss of Louisiana's coast," Milling said.
Energy, seafood industries at risk
Consider the economic impact. Thirty percent of the nation's seafood comes from the region, supporting about 32,000 jobs, while 30 percent of the oil and 12 percent of the gas produced in the United States cross the fragile Louisiana wetlands, Milling said. Energy exploration and production directly accounts for more than 50,000 jobs in Louisiana, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The successful delivery of product is absolutely dependent upon the functionality of pipelines, holding tanks, compressors, and gas processing plants, all of which are dependent upon the protection historically supported by what is now a depleting ecosystem," Milling said.
Without coastal restoration, he cautioned, the Gulf of Mexico will continue its inexorable northward advance, threatening to sink New Orleans itself within 50 years. The wetlands and barrier islands also serve as a valuable buffer against storms, and that protection has eroded over the decades.
"It has taken 80 years to get to the deplorable state we are in today, and under the best of circumstances it will take decades to recover our footing," Milling said. "Even as the state proceeds with a sense of urgency, patience on the part of all will be required, for there are no instantaneous resolutions, no instant gratification to the conditions we face."