Climate change has made Louisiana one of the most endangered states in the country. It has been struck by six major hurricanes in less than 25 years and lost hundreds of square miles of land to erosion in roughly the same period.
But thanks partly to its extraordinarily bad luck — in particular the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 — the state has also secured an enormous amount of money for coastal adaptation: The federal government spent billions of dollars after Katrina to help Louisiana prepare for future storms, and a later settlement with BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill gave the state tens of billions more for coastal restoration.
This combination of bad luck and federal largesse has allowed Louisiana to pursue an audacious coastal protection program that has been touted as a “proven playbook” and “the right way to build climate resilience.” Officials have spent billions creating new marshes and diverting river sediment, slowing down the disappearance of coastal land, and they’ve also undertaken several large levee projects to protect low-lying populations. This plan has backing from both Democrat and Republican politicians, even though program officials talk openly about its role in responding to climate change. The latest version of the plan, which Governor John Bel Edwards called a “success story,” sailed through the legislature last week.
But a reality check is on the way. The state’s ambitious projects have successfully reduced land loss and flood risk, but many of its coastal communities still face an existential threat from climate change in spite of all the new infrastructure. And the money that has sustained the state’s coastal buildout will dwindle in the coming decade, forcing ever harder choices about what to fund.
Every six years, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, or CPRA, releases a kind of shopping list, identifying which coastal projects it wants to fund over the following 50 years. According to the newest version of the plan, released this year, the state aims to spend a whopping $1 billion annually on those projects, an astonishing goal that reflects just how much federal funding the state has received. Half the spending goes toward ecosystem projects that are designed to slow down coastal land loss, and the other half goes toward projects that protect towns and cities from flooding.
But when it comes to slowing down land loss, CPRA has always been fighting a rearguard battle, said Simone Maloz, the campaign director for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition and a key collaborator on the state’s plan.
“We can build thousands of acres of marsh really quickly by tapping into the river or tapping into dredged material from offshore sites,” Maloz told Grist. “But we cannot have it all the way that it used to be. There’s just not enough time, there’s not enough money, there’s not enough resources.”
Even with Louisiana’s unrivaled resources, coastal protection has become a matter of triage. CPRA’s own estimates show that the effect of its restoration program will be limited compared to the sheer scale of land loss. Under a moderate scenario, if the state sees just over a foot of sea-level rise in the next 50 years, CPRA’s coastal protection projects will save about a third of the 1,100 square miles that the state expects would vanish. Under higher projections, with two feet of sea-level rise over the same period, the projects would save less than 10 percent of a staggering 3,000 square miles of vulnerable land.
“We can rebuild a piece of marsh, but in 30 years, that may be the only piece of marsh there,” said Stuart Brown, a senior CPRA official and a main architect of the plan.
The state is also struggling to keep up with flood risk. For more than a century, Louisiana has relied on the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design and build large levee projects around major cities, with funds tending to arrive after these cities suffer damage from big storms. This was the approach the state took in New Orleans following Katrina: After the Corps’s old flood defense system failed during the storm, devastating the Lower Ninth Ward and nearby St. Bernard Parish, Congress gave the agency $14 billion to construct an enormous system of barriers and pumps. This system held up during a direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Ida in 2021.
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