River diversions are a proven option for rebuilding Louisiana’s vanishing coast

We should attack this crisis quickly with as much might, money and ingenuity as we can muster

January 6, 2022 4:01 pm

With communities still struggling to recover in the wake of Hurricane Ida, the state is giving them more time to apply for federal pandemic aid for water and sewer improvements. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

A new year is upon is, one full of new promise and possibilities, and hopefully an end to the pandemic. Mardi Gras is right around the corner, and we are ready to celebrate! We don’t have to worry about the potential for damaging winds, storm surge and floodwaters for months. Right?

Well, not quite. Many people across south Louisiana don’t have the luxury of moving on. In the parts of our state where the effects of Hurricane Ida and the storms of 2020 were most severe, people decorated for the holidays in homes that were stripped to the studs. They were hoping to hear tapping on their rooftops from contractors, not Santa’s reindeer. I hope you’ll remember that our friends and neighbors still need our help.

Kimberly Davis Reyher

More broadly, though, it is never a good time to become lulled into a false sense of security just because it’s not hurricane season. Another one is looming, and another one after that. And with every minute that passes, another chunk of Louisiana is lost with it, in essence increasing the risk posed by hurricanes every year.

If that seems alarmist to you, consider the role of our coastal wetlands and barrier islands in hurricane protection. When hurricanes are swirling over the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, they tend to maintain or gain strength, but the moment they hit land, they begin to weaken. Our coast acts as sort of a sponge that saps a hurricane’s strength and knocks down storm surge.

The problem is that it’s vanishing – at an alarming rate. For instance, one recent study shows that the Gulf of Mexico is 10 miles closer to the city of Houma, which was hit hard by Hurricane Ida, than it was in the 1930s. And keep in mind that if the Gulf is 10 miles closer to Houma, it’s also 10 miles closer to the rest of us too.

Making matters worse is that while our coast helps protect us from hurricanes, it also takes the brunt of hurricane damage. Witness what happened to Grand Isle in Hurricane Ida, for instance, or the fact that the storm may have wiped out more than 100 square miles of wetlands in one fell swoop.

With every minute that passes, another chunk of Louisiana is lost with it, in essence increasing the risk posed by hurricanes every year.

Fortunately, we have science-based solutions to this crisis. We also have funding. And we have widespread bipartisan support – from policymakers and from the people and communities fortunate enough to call south Louisiana home – for restoration projects such as large-scale sediment diversions that will reconnect our dying wetlands to the might river that built them.

These projects were first envisioned nearly a half century ago, and they are among the most-studied public works projects in Louisiana history. They will build land and sustain existing wetlands. And projections show that wildlife, including dolphins, will fare better over the long term if the diversions are built.

Furthermore, we don’t have to just rely upon science to tell us that the river is capable of building land. It’s already happening, in places like Mardi Gras Pass and Wax Lake Delta and even some spots that are so new they don’t have names yet. Yes, parts of Louisiana are disappearing, but in places where the river is delivering sediment and nutrients, Louisiana is also growing!

I believe we are past the point of trying to figure out whether to undertake these coastal restoration projects. Now our focus should be attacking this crisis as quickly as possible, and with as much might, money and ingenuity as we can muster. Our future depends on it.

So yes, let the good times roll. But we should also roll up our sleeves. We have a lot of work to do.

Kimberly Davis Reyher is executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

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