Commentary

Louisiana’s shrinking wetlands puts communities and cultures at risk | Charles Allen

Vulnerable populations need to provide input on the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion

May 11, 2021 12:41 pm

The Louisiana Highway 1 Bridge, also known as the Gateway to the Gulf Expressway, rises above the marshland and coastal waters on August 25, 2019, in Leeville. Louisiana has been losing its coastal landscape at the rate of almost a football fields worth of land every hour.. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last year, I had the opportunity to board a small plane and fly over Louisiana’s coast. Taking off from the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, recognizable landmarks like the Louisiana Superdome quickly faded into the background, and in only 20-30 minutes, we were flying over open water. We often hear that our wetlands are vanishing, but to see firsthand how sparse they are is shocking. 

Communities in South Louisiana are the poster children for climate change, and our state’s future is at a pivotal turning point. For decades, we’ve been losing land at an alarming rate from coastal erosion, sea-level rise and other threats. And communities of color are right on the front lines. New Orleans is a majority-Black city, where the people most at risk are also vital to its sense of place. We need systemic change and environmental restoration to protect our people and culture. Often people of color are left out of the conversation, denied the opportunity to discuss possible solutions or provide insight into how they’re affected. 

We now have an opportunity to turn the tide by raising our voices in support of the single-largest restoration project in U.S. history, the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion. This game-changing project will reconnect the Mississippi River and its rich, life-giving sediment to the wetlands. The sediment diversion will mimic the natural spring floods that once replenished the marshes, benefiting birds, wildlife and fisheries. 

The coastal landscape, including areas that are home to communities of Indigenous people and people of color, is dynamic and changing. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion will build and sustain wetlands in the Barataria Basin that provide storm protection for countless communities in Southeast Louisiana, from small towns such as Lafitte to population centers such as Belle Chasse and the Greater New Orleans region. Healthy wetlands act as a natural buffer that, in addition to hard structures such as levees and floodwalls, protect our communities from rising seas and storm surge.

Since the 1930s, the Barataria Basin has lost nearly 295,000 acres of land. That loss has displaced communities, threatened critical infrastructure and jobs, and devastated habitat for birds and other wildlife. The  Barataria Basin was also ground zero for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, causing the wetlands there to disappear three times faster than those in the rest of the state. The levees that protect our communities are also partly to blame for this land loss; by walling in the Mississippi River, we’ve starved our coast of the sediment it needs to survive. We need levees to protect our communities, but if we don’t address the vanishing wetlands, we can expect to be flooded more often, which would further put our diverse and culturally rich communities at risk.

The unique cultures and way of life for millions of Louisianians are inextricably connected to the natural resources of the state’s coast. With its special cuisine and traditions and its destination as a place to hunt and fish, Louisiana is world-renowned for its distinctive coastal culture, which relies on areas like wetlands and the resources they produce. In many local areas, generations of families have occupied the same communities — and even the same land and family homes — for generations. These ties to the land are woven into the history and culture of local areas and communities and are at risk of being lost as Louisiana’s land loss crisis continues.

Now is the time for all of us to get involved. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is asking for our input on the Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion. This procedural milestone for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion gives an opportunity for locals to be part of the process. A public comment period is open through June 3, offering individuals and organizations an opportunity to play an active role in the restoration process. 

Like any significant issue that affects all the people in our area, it is critical that we diversify the voices who are represented and become more inclusive. The environmental movement should reflect all of the communities it serves. By offering public comment on the record, the real people impacted by and receiving benefits from this project can make their voices heard to state and federal agency officials and other decision makers. Visit mississippiriverdelta.org to add your voice to this pivotal moment for Louisiana’s coast.

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Charles Allen
Charles Allen

Charles Allen is the Community Engagement Director for the Gulf Coast at the National Audubon Society, where the entire focus of his work on diversity, equity and inclusion by enhancing Audubon’s reach to underrepresented communities in the Gulf Coast region.

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