APPEL: We Need A Smart Strategic Retreat In Louisiana’s Wetlands

The Advocate has a piece last week with the headline: ‘We’re screwed’: The only question is how quickly Louisiana wetlands will vanish; study says.

A few years ago, I wrote a treatise on the very subject that the Advocate story on the newly-released wetland loss study discussed. At that time, I dared to speak heresy as I challenged the doctrine that we must follow the strategy that only by saving the wetlands would we be able to save the lower portion of the state.

The criteria I used to come to my conclusions were simple. The natural height of the marsh has been and is now barely above sea level and many scientific studies, including now this latest one, have projected sea level rise over the next few decades to be from 2 to 5 feet. Based upon these well-documented facts, my conclusion was that since any newly restored wetlands would in a short time be submerged by the Gulf anyway, then how would spending $100 billion on wetland restoration make any sense. My alternative was to construct water control structures to protect to a high level the habitable areas of south Louisiana first, and then if there was any funding left spend it on wetlands.

This all made perfect sense to me, as my understanding of what Holland, with no wetland barrier, did after devastating flooding in the 1950’s was fundamentally just this. But with an army of high paid scientists and conservationists and $100 billion to be spent on engineering and construction it has proven to be impossible to get anyone to reconsider our strategy in a state where money politics is widely known to dominate logic.

Some years ago, we placed all responsibility for coastal protection and restoration under the umbrella of CPRA. The idea was a good one, the lower part of our state is too fragile and critical to our survival, and the concept was to take politics out of saving it. But by placing the responsibility for our salvation in a board representing so many constituencies, the outcome seems to be that we have created a massive bureaucracy that periodically becomes embroiled in squabbles between competing interests. Well intentioned as it may be, time and money constraints beg for a strong voice, one that can never arise from such a diverse board.

Case in point, if CPRA believes that the recently released study cited by the Advocate is wrong, then the urgency of our situation demands that CPRA must respond with reasons why it is not valid. But CPRA’s response has been that we should wait for the 2023 update to their plan. Surely with all the money spent on scientists and engineers they can either agree or disagree with the new study sooner than that. Surely, considering this recent study, someone can demonstrate how we can keep ahead of sea level rise by rapidly building wetlands higher and higher, and how we will pay for all that. But that is how bureaucracy works.

From the previous update to CPRA’s plan, the time frame for inundation had decreased and expected land loss had increased. Now more emphatically than ever, acceleration of that process is exactly what the study detailed in the Advocate illustrates. Clearly the evidence presented in the new study and CPRA’s previous revision create the fundamental question as to whether CPRA’s plan is dangerously defective because of a fatal flaw. And that flaw is that we are in a race against time and we are losing. If the study in the Advocate is correct, we simply do not have the time needed to follow CPRA’s strategy to rebuild the wetlands to a protecting height and keep sustained their growing elevation ahead of sea level rise.

Therefore, as I had suggested, perhaps spending all that time and money only to see in a few decades that the Gulf shoreline resets to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain anyway is pure folly. If that proves accurate because we have stayed the course, but the race to rebuild the wetlands fell short, then we need a contingency plan on what to do with a million plus displaced residents and the loss of a vast majority of our state’s economy.

Today we have three options. We can continue with CPRA’s current strategy heavily based upon wetland restoration and take our chances against the sea, we can change course and move toward primarily protecting habitable areas with water control structures, or we can surrender to perceived inevitability and create a plan to abandon southeast Louisiana and reset our shoreline between Mandeville and Baton Rouge. By the way, the last option is not so far-fetched, Indonesia is already preparing to surrender Jakarta to the sea.

If we were to decide to change our approach and focus on protecting the habitable areas a key question arises. Do we have the time and money to build such massive structures from the Pearl River, continuing below New Orleans, and off to the west to protect the habitable areas of southeast Louisiana? I do not know.

What I do know is that if the study quoted in the Advocate and the others before it are accurate, the threat of an encroaching sea makes COVID19 look like a lark in the park! I do know that if these studies are accurate, not protecting our habitable areas may result in Mandeville and Baton Rouge becoming beachfront property, even as New Orleans, Slidell, and Houma become fish habitats.

So, let me once again speak heresy. I confess that I do not know what to believe. But as it is clear that we are literally in a race for the very survival of our state, then perhaps it is time to abandon the bureaucracy of the CPRA model and grant special authority to a person or team to get the job of protecting our sliver of the world done. Call this person a czar if you will, it does not matter. What does matter is that this person or team has the vision, authority, and prestige to cut through all the red tape and get the job done. Since we simply do not have the money to go it alone, this person will have to make the case to the American people that allowing a significant part of our nation sink beneath the waves would be a tragedy worthy of a COVID19 like response.

If we decide to keep operating under the current model and, critically, the recent studies are accurate, spending precious time and money on a strategy whose basis seems to be flawed may mean that within the lifetime of many of us there will be no New Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, Slidell, Houma, or anything else in southeast Louisiana.

Bold action and leadership is called for. To do otherwise…. well that is something that is too awful to comprehend!

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