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The Louisiana Coast: Last Call — The Shape We're In Now

If you enter New Orleans in a Google search you’ll get words and images that echo the city’s unofficial motto: laissez les bon temps rouler, let the good times roll.

Americans love to visit this place because, as noted TV producer David Simon has said, New Orleanians will always find a way to celebrate, even when they get bad news.

But there’s some bad news coming to bayou country that no one will be dancing to.

Just a few miles from the street celebrations in the storied French Quarter, southeast Louisiana — including the New Orleans area — is in a fight for its very life.

“The changes that have been experienced in coastal Louisiana since 1935 are stunning,” says United States Geological Survey scientist and Nobel Laureate Virginia Burkett. “A huge percentage of the coastal land mass is now open water.”

“The patient is definitely sick — and I think, on an unsustainable trajectory,” says Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority head Garret Graves.

In the last 70 years, a single human lifetime, a landscape it took nature 6,000 years to build now sits at death's door. Some 2,000 square miles of marsh and swamp has been turned to open water.

The Gulf of Mexico, aided by sinking land and rising seas, has been swallowing this region at such a horrifying rate that a coastline that was a long-day’s boat ride away just 30 years ago could be at the city’s back door in 50 years.

What is arguably the greatest environmental and economic disaster in the nation’s history is racing toward a tragic climax that few of the tourists who flock here know about — and that Congress has shown little interest in addressing.

It is a struggle with massive environmental and economic implications for the nation. Yet those involved in this fight now candidly admit two points:

They are losing.

And if they don’t stage a comeback, most of the land in this part of the state will be under water by the end of the century, resulting in one of the largest permanent human migrations in the nation’s history, and one of its worst economic calamities.

“We are in an extremely perilous situation just because of the rate of loss that we had been experiencing over the last century and the failure of the way we manage the system to be able to be able to build anything to offset the loss,” says David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation. “But, now that we are certain that we’re facing an accelerating rate of sea level, then we go from a kind of long-term chronic problem to a — I hate to use the phrase tipping point — where we’re going to go over the edge. And we’re going to go over very rapidly, and that rate of land loss threatens to seriously accelerate.”

The causes are well known. Southeast Louisiana was built on the great delta of the Mississippi River. But since the 1930s, levees have blocked it from that life-giving sediment while its wetlands circulatory system was eviscerated by more than 10,000 miles of canals carved through its heart for oil, gas and shipping.

“It’s been a one-two punch,” says Tulane University Environmental Law professor Oliver Houck. “If you have a patient and you cut the patient off from food and water, which is what the levees do — they knock out the sediments and the low levels of nutrients necessary to maintain the marsh — and you knock off the water, fresh water in-flow — the patient’s already weak, right? Reeling, and not in good shape. Then you cut it up with knives? That patient’s gone. We have 10,000 miles of oil and gas canals out there - and we’re building more each year just as if they weren’t a problem. They have diced and sliced and cut up the marsh to a fair thee well. It can’t recover with those kinds of wounds.”

Credit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center
The water/land boundaries in southeast Louisiana.

In the last 70 years, a single human lifetime, a landscape it took nature 6,000 years to build now sits at death’s door. Some 2,000 square miles of marsh and swamp has been turned to open water.

“99 percent of our land is eroded, but in the last 10 years it has exponentially gotten worse and worse and worse and worse,” says Buras fishing guide Ryan Lambert. “A little hurricane like Isaac, you wouldn’t believe the damage it did on what we have left up toward the levee. It’s incredible.”

As a result this region is sinking at the fastest rate of any large coastal landscape in the world. And because of that, it now faces the highest rate of sea level rise on the planet — something between 3.5 to 5 feet. And for an area with an average elevation of two to three feet, that spells certain disaster.

“When you have coastal populations living in Terrebonne Parish and the Houma area — where that entire parish, 80 percent of it, is at an elevation of 2 feet or less — and you’re talking about, minimum, 3 to 4 feet of sea level rise in this century, then Terrebonne Parish and Houma have got to do something, and something dramatic, in terms of real expenditures of large amounts of money if they want to keep their coastal population centers in that area protected and maintain its current viability,” says NOAA coastal researcher Tim Osborn.

This isn’t a theory, or a prediction based on computer models. This has been happening and measured by scientists for decades.

The stakes are huge — not just for New Orleans and Louisiana, but for the nation.

The list of the contributions this coast and city make to the nation’s environment and economy almost defies belief:

70 percent of all the migratory waterfowl on the continent winter or stopover here; 85 percent of Gulf marine species rely on its estuaries; it produces 50 percent of the nation’s wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40 percent of its oysters.

On the economic side, it’s the nation’s top domestic producer of oil and gas; 90 percent of the country’s energy supply moves through its coast, much of it from the 4000 offshore rigs, and it has 50 percent of the nation’s refining capacity.

Its port is the largest in the nation, vital to farmers, coal miners and a host of other industries in 31 states.

All that is now at risk.

So the disaster rolling toward The Big Easy won’t just stop the party in its streets, it will cause severe financial hardship to the rest of the nation.

Credit David Muth
David Muth, the Louisiana State Director of the National Wildlife Federation's Louisiana Coastal Campaign.

“Will the nation survive the loss of all these things?” asks the NWF’sMuth. “Well, presumably. But it will mean many, many, many hundreds of billions of spending on relocation of infrastructure that didn’t need to be spent if we made a relatively modest investment on restoration and protection here in Louisiana.”

But there is hope.

After years of denial, Louisiana has a Master Plan for survival. It is a 40-year program that could stop the loss in some areas by using pipelines and huge openings in the river to put sediment back in its sinking basins.

But it will cost $50 billion, a sum this state doesn’t have, and Congress has yet to embrace.

We asked the key scientists and agency heads in charge of this fight to diagnose their patient in medical terms. The answers were not encouraging:

“I think it needs to be in intensive care. It is really a serious issue, and we have a fairly limited amount of time to respond to it,” says Don Boesch, Professor of Marine Science and President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“It needs chemo, and radiation,” says Denise Reed, Chief Scientist at The Water Institute of the Gulf.

“Well it’s critical, and it’s on life support right now, I think,” says AaronViles, Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“I’d be thinking about the hospice, but there’s still some hope,” says John Barry, historian and member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority and the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The scientific community is confident in the solutions they’ve pinned their hopes to. But they also know not may people outside the area really comprehend what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen in the decades ahead. And the lack of concern by Congress puts a shadow on that optimism.

“I’m completely optimistic that it could happen,” says Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program head Kerry St. Pé. “Am I optimistic that it will happen? That’s where I don’t know.”

Unless something changes soon the good times in this fabled city will be coming to an end.

Tomorrow — What nature built in coastal Louisiana over thousands of years, and how flood protection has, in just a few decades, starved it.

Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.

The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.

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