Environmental Assessment Furthers Louisiana’s Climate Adaptation Goal

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The Army Corps of Engineers last week released an environmental impact assessment for the nation’s largest climate adaptation plan to date, which would help to restore the Louisiana coastline using money paid by BP as part of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill settlement. The plan would punch a hole in the Mississippi River’s levees and divert sediment and freshwater toward damaged marshes, rebuilding them. Despite concerns that the diversion project could disrupt populations of oysters, brown shrimp, and bottlenose dolphins, the Corps concluded the benefits of rebuilding the marshes outweighed the costs. 

Why This Matters: The Louisiana coastline is sinking at an alarming rate — a football field an hour.  Coral reefs buffer shorelines and marshes and wetlands act as sponges for floodwaters, storing millions of gallons and slowing floodwaters. This natural infrastructure has eroded due to development and pollution (including offshore oil operations), shipping, and overfishing. Southern Louisiana’s low-lying towns are particularly at risk when hurricanes hit, and these cause further damage to receding marshes that are already struggling to abate floodwaters. Unless the health of these natural defenses is restored, Louisiana risks a future of repeated disasters threatening New Orleans, displacing millions and costing the U.S. economy billions. 

Preventative Care

In 2004, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the region and destroyed coastal oil infrastructure, more oil was spilled into Louisiana’s suffering marshes than during the tragic Exxon Valdez spill. Not long after, the BP oil spill devastated the entire gulf region, again damaging marshes. Now, Louisiana’s marshes are even less equipped to protect coastal communities than before.

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation cost the U.S. economy a whopping $250 billion. But preventative climate adaptation could cost 80% less. The entirety of Louisiana’s 50-year plan to save its sinking wetlands (which includes New Orleans), will cost approximately $50 billion, and the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, which is estimated to cost $2 billion, will be paid entirely by BP’s Deepwater Horizon recovery compensation budget.

Experts say this project is the key to preserving the region’s economic and cultural health. “It is the shot in the arm that the Barataria Basin needs and it is the only real and sustainable way to build tens of thousands of acres of marsh,” said Chip Kline, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board. “It will help protect the overwhelming majority of the citizens in southeast Louisiana, it will help preserve our working coast that we know we have here in south Louisiana and it will undoubtedly help preserve the cultural heritage that exists in southeast Louisiana.”

Marine Life

The assessment found, however, that the changes in salinity caused by an influx of freshwater could be particularly damaging to some species, especially the bottlenose dolphin. The project could potentially reduce the region’s dolphin population by up to 30%, which would be a tragic loss for the ecosystem. Luckily for species threatened by these changes, the Louisiana coastal authority has a plan which would dedicate funding to relocating oyster beds, monitoring and protecting dolphin populations, and offering retraining and aid to fishing and oystering communities in the region.

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