July 28, 2005
As we begin to focus upon the issue of coastal restoration, I would suggest that you keep in mind three fundamental facts.
First, we sit today in the middle of the 7th largest delta on earth formed by the Mississippi River over 6,000 years from distributions of freshwater, sediment and nutrients. Over that time, this delicate has continuously subsided under its own weight only to be recreated and refurbished by that same massive river periodically overflowing its bank.
Second in south Louisiana we live on fingers of and adjacent to rivers, bayous and streams. Historically we have been surrounded by a massive, complex ecosystem of swamp and marsh. The very existence of that ecosystem has allowed us, and our predecessors, to live and work in this delta. Its presence has protected us from the ravages of the Gulf of Mexico.
Third, during the last 70 to 80 years this diverse and productive ecosystem has been disappearing at an alarming rate. As a result, the survival of south Louisiana as we know it is at risk. We now face a crisis of unimaginable dimension.
The proximate cause began in the late 1920’s when national policy, conceived and executed in good faith to protect this country from flooding and to maintain navigation along the Mississippi, mandated the construction of a complex levee system which effectively halted periodic flooding. The result has been the deprivation of vital resources absolutely essential for the continued health and survival of our ecosystem. Today it is an ecosystem of the verge of collapse. It is literally starving to death.
This ever increasing deteriorating condition was exacerbated not only by the construction of canals throughout South Louisiana allowing for vast intrusions of saltwater but also the exploration and production of oil and gas commencing in the 30s and continuing throughout the next 3 to 4 decades.
Fundamentally then, human intervention has been the prime contributor. However, it is important to understand that in each instance, best practices were utilized and few appreciated the impacts always, the law of unintended consequences ruled the day. To better appreciate what has happened over the last 70 to 100 years, consider the following very brief film.
You have just experienced the literal implosion of the 7th largest delta on Earth. Focus your attention now on the red and orange coloration on the map behind me. That coloration constitutes past and future loss of Louisiana’s landscape. As you consider the map, reflect upon the following factual statistics.
A) As you look at the map, it becomes evident that the shoreline over time will advance inland as much as 33 miles by the year 2050. Thus, New Orleans which was 50 miles shall be 20.
B) 2.7 miles equal to one additional foot of storm surge.
- Category 4 storms surge 8 to 12 / 18 – 22
These statistical facts, logically extrapolated, only begin to tell this story for the true impacts have multiple implications.
The demise of this delta will have staggering environmental ramification. Louisiana’s millions of acres of wetlands are among the most diverse and productive ecosystem. There is nothing else close to it in the country. No wonder it is designated “America’s Wetland”.
The delta is: 4,000,000 acres, 4,000 sq. miles.
1. Twice the size of the Everglades.
2. 25% of the nation’s coastal wetlands.
3. 40% of the nation’s saltwater marsh.
4. It is home to millions of migratory birds, 75% of all migrating birds/ Mississippi flyway winter/ numerous endangered species.
5. Approximately 75% of Louisiana’s commercial fish and shellfish harvested are dependent upon this ecosystem during all or part of their lifecycle.
A) As stated in the October addition of the National Geographic,
“As Wildlife Habitat, (America’s Wetland) makes the Florida Everglades look like a petting zoo by comparison.”
And yet in the fact of this natural bounty, 90-95% of all coastal erosion in the continental U.S. in the 1990s occurred south and southwest of this great city.
For those of us who live and work in the midst of America’s Wetland, it is the very heart of our economy- foundation of our livelihood and lifestyle.
There is no doubt as America’s Wetland collapses this city shall become at risk as well as the lifestyle of hundreds of thousands of citizens living in communities throughout South Louisiana- St. Bernard, Houma, Morgan City, Lake Charles and thousands of other small towns throughout the region.
In the 11 parishes surrounding the Barataria/ Terrebonne Estuaries alone there are estimated to be 220,000 homes, 180,000 business establishments, 200 schools and 7,000 miles of roads and highways. None of this infrastructure, buildings or schools was built to withstand direct impacts of increased storm surges from tropical storms and hurricanes – all of it shall be vulnerable.
Contemplate for a moment the impending threat to those living in that immediate geography and the corresponding need for massive human dislocation and the potential loss of life.
The loss of America’s Wetland will be felt by the nation as a whole as our abundant natural resources also become vulnerable.
-30% of fishing harvested in the lower 48 states
is derived directly from this ecosystem- as it
goes, so that bountiful harvest.
Over 25% of oil and gas consumed by this country crosses the fragile ecosystem, and without its protection, the complex infrastructure, wells, thousands of miles of pipelines, compressor systems, holding tanks, all essential to delivery shall be at risk, for each structure and every mile of pipe located under that ecosystem was fabricated based upon the inherent protection afforded by our marsh and swamp. Hurricane Ivan and its after effect only began to tell that story.
- America’s Wetland has protected municipal and private infrastructure investment from public utilities to fabrication yards, shipyards, refineries, as well as petrochemical and chemical plants all with an estimated value in excess of $110 billion.
It protects navigation east and west on the intracoastal waterway. 150 miles of that waterway system will be opened to the Gulf thus radically disrupting commerce. Moreover, the southern reached of the Mississippi River Levee System could become the only barrier separating the river from the Gulf creating stresses upon that system never contemplated before.
- At the end of the day, all of this infrastructure, so vital to this country as a whole is vulnerable as America’s Wetlands gradually disappears.
So – we live in the middle of a crisis unlike any in the country – the loss of an area equal to Delaware plus Baltimore and D.C. the collapse of a delta which on the world stage will be an environmental disaster/ national embarrassment.
The potential destruction of the cultural cent of New Orleans not to mention Acadiana.
Oil and gas will be severely impacted. And I don’t have to tell you what periodic closes of the Mississippi River, the intracoastal waterway system and our port facilities might do tot the rest of the country. That is self evident.
Let me be cynical for one moment. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that if this crisis formed part of the landscape of the Northeast Coast – this country would not have already addressed it/ a rhetorical question.
Over the last number of years, this state has been working closely with the CORP and other Federal Agencies in an effort to understand the root causes, the potential fixes and the underlying challenges. As a result of these efforts, this countries best scientists and engineers now believe that, if we apply state of the art application, we can reverse this trend and establish a sustainable coastline.
It will require an integrated restoration program; a holistic, comprehensive engineering plan to mimic historic patterns of the Delta through controlled diversion, the reestablishment of Barrier Islands/ Extensive shoreline restoration.
I It could well be the largest and most complex engineering effort ever undertaken by the country. We do not have all the answers, will be very costly, it will be time consuming and at out best, we cannot save it all.
We have developed a comprehensive blueprint for such action and an interim plan designating prioritized activities to be constructed over the next ten years.
Today, a bill is making its way through Congress to authorize the goals and objectives of that interim plan. We are hopeful but not certain that it will pass.
But authorization does not equate to appropriation of funds. That shall be depended upon the development of detailed plans and specifications and the approval of numerous government agencies. Moreover, there shall be heated competition for funding from other large regional restoration efforts – Upper Miss., Great Lakes, Everglades and Chesapeake. Ultimately, we must face this competition head on. –We must be prepared to draw to real life distinctions.
While comparisons are odious, our effort to restore America’s Wetlands is the only one which is time dependent. If we delay in commencing meaningful restoration activity, it could be too late for it is clear that past a certain state of deterioration, yet unknown, the deterioration becomes irreversible. If we cross that time line, the cost to the country will be incalculable. Thus, ours is the only effort where the consequences of a delayed response or of inaction itself are multiple and irreparable.
How we deliver a message conveying the crucial components of “time sensitivity” and “urgency” without impugning the merits of other regional efforts shall be no mean feat.
There are great challenges ahead.
To ultimately achieve a sustainable coastline, there must be consistency of effort and coordination of thought and action at every governmental level. The size and complexity of our federal task, both financial and managerial is such that if we are perceived to have lost the central message, the focus or the desire, we will lose. We cannot allow this effort to get caught up in petty politics or parochial internecine wars. Louisiana at very level must speak with one unwavering voice. We must commit extraordinary effort and extensive resources. It will not be easy.
This country must also adapt to a long-term commitment. As we all know, this nation responds well to tragedy. Does it have the foresight to react to clear and pending danger on a scale almost unheard of? It is a question yet to be answered.
In conclusion, all of us live work and play on the very edge of this crisis. If we fail to act, the single legacy that we shall leave to our children and grandchildren is a greatly diminished Louisiana –not just in size but in value, heritage, culture, resources, commerce and history. That legacy is unacceptable. “We have no choice.” Louisiana must meet these challenges in ways it has never been called upon before. Our elected officials, federal and state, must be held to a higher standard. We cannot and should not expect any less of them or of ourselves. Ultimately, I believe Louisiana can and will meet them. But massive and timely federal funding and commitment is critical. Can we successfully convince the federal government as well? That shall remain the overriding question.