Coast in Crisis: Rising seas and sinking land challenge Louisiana coastal effort

Billions poured into restoration efforts
Updated: Nov. 16, 2020 at 9:56 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - For decades, Louisiana officials and scientists have talked about restoring Louisiana’s sinking delta, largely because of fine money related to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Over the next dozen years or so, they will plow roughly $7 billion dollars from BP and its partners in the Macondo well into its coast, sculpting new islands, ridges and marsh.

While it amounts to an environmental restoration unprecedented in human history, the simple fact is no one can say how much will be left 20, 50 or 100 years from now.

“We have to ask ourselves, are the investments we’re making today able to keep up?” said Jesse Keenan, Ph.D., a Tulane University Associate Professor of Real Estate, who specializes in the effects of climate change on U.S. financial systems.

“This is a losing battle for some areas,” Keenan said.

Scientists tell us that the seas today are rising at a rate of about an inch-and-a-half every ten years, more than double the rate through most of the twentieth century.

As the oceans warm and glaciers and ice sheets melt, the estimates for the future vary wildly, anywhere from a couple of feet on the low end by 2100 to the extreme high of more than eight feet.

What is not clear is how the rate of sea level rise will affect marsh or islands that are just feet-- or inches-- above the average water line today.

The closest anyone comes to answering that critical question is the state’s coastal master plan with low, medium and high scenarios for sea level.

The differences are stark, from 1,200 square miles in the best case and 4,000 square miles in the worst, assuming the state takes no action to stop it.

“If we’re in the worst case for all those, if that turns out to be the actual future, they’re right, we’re doomed,” said Dr. John Lopez, Director of the Pontchartrain Conservancy Coastal Sustainability Program.

Hopefully, Dr. Lopez said, that is not the case.

“When you look at predicting virtually anything beyond 10 or 20 years, it’s extremely speculative,” Lopez said.

He takes a more optimistic view that technology advances could limit climate change and its effects in the decades to come.

“At this point, in the total balance, it’s not the time to give up,” Dr. Lopez said. “It think the consensus of even the scientists, there’s still a chance, we can still maybe fight our way out of this. No one’s trying to build all the coast.”

In Louisiana, most of the land loss related to sea level actually stems from subsidence, the fact the land below us is sinking.

For example, an LSU study estimated that since 1856 the seas around Fort Proctor in St. Bernard Parish rose about one foot while the land around the fort sand three and a half feet, a total of 50 inches of change.

For all the political noise about climate change and whether it’s real, sea level rise is already figured into levee projects or flood gates.

The Army Corps of Engineers uses similar low, medium and high scenarios for relative sea level rise when it plans a levee or some other project.

“We know sea level is changing. So, it just wouldn’t make any sense to use past sea level as a future condition,” said Will Veatch, a hydrologist with Army Corps of Engineers.

Keenan points out Louisiana is by no means alone in confronting rising seas.

Consequences will be felt along the U.S. coastline, forcing hard financial decisions, changes in building codes and home elevations.

“And ultimately, it’s not just about how we build and the architecture and the material selections that we have, it’s where we build. It’s land use,” Keenan said.

While the BP money will run out in about a dozen year, congress abruptly cut off one avenue to more funding a couple months ago, choosing the national parks over Louisiana’s coast.

The National Parks Conservation Act will devote $900 million a year from oil and gas royalties to park maintenance instead of the coastal work Louisiana’s delegation was pushing.

“This is a forced error," said Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana. “This is a forced program. It’s not a national priority right now as we have the backdrop of a global pandemic and or of course, you have much greater needs.”

“You’re in competition with everyone around the country for a limited amount of dollars,” Keenan said.

In future decades, Keenan believes the federal government would be much more likely to invest in, say, the Port of New Orleans than in islands or bird habitat.

“If history is any guide, the environmental restoration component of it will, frankly, rate pretty low,” Keenan said. “When the BP money runs out, there’s going to be some really hard questions about what do we do with the limited amount of resources we have.”

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