BP Funds to be Used to Build Barrier Islands in Louisiana

Barrier islands play a critical role in defending Louisiana's marshes from coastal erosion

12-28-2010 // Craig Guillot
Brown pelican soaring

In conjunction with funding from coastal restoration programs, officials in Louisiana are planning to use more than $100 million provided to the state by BP to rebuild at least two barrier islands. Biologists and those involved in coastal restoration say that while rebuilding barrier islands can be a costly process, it may be the only option left to protect habitats that are on the verge of disappearing.

Barrier islands play a critical role in defending Louisiana's marshes from coastal erosion. They help break down some of the larger waves and help regulate the flow of saltwater into the estuaries. They also provide critical habitat for wintering birds and nesting resident birds such as brown pelicans.

But the barrier islands are disappearing at astonishing rates. Partially formed by fine sand from the Mississippi River then pummeled almost annually by hurricanes, many of the islands are fighting a constant battle just to keep their shores above water. The Chandeleur Islands, one of the first lines of defense from tropical storms, had more than 50 percent of its landmass erased by Hurricane Katrina. If efforts to restore the sand and sediment are not successful, the islands are expected to be wiped from the map within a decade.

“Eventually when there is no material coming in, the islands get narrower, disappear beneath the water and become shoals. We actually have a series of shoals beneath the water today that were once barrier islands,” said Paul Kemp, vice president of the National Audubon Society.  

No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Early in the summer during the height of the Gulf oil disaster, BP committed $360 million to build sand berms alongside existing barrier islands. The controversial plan was aimed at keeping oil away from their shores but last month the oil company agreed that the last $100 million could be used to transition sand berm work into full-scale barrier island restoration projects.

John Lopez, Coastal Sustainability program director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said that Louisiana has had several successful barrier island restoration projects under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA). An ambitious breakwater project at Raccoon Island which started in 2006, led to the construction of new shoreline and avian habitat. In another project at Whiskey Island, more than 300 acres of back barrier marsh was created and more than 13,000 linear feet of dune was created by pumping in sediment from the Gulf of Mexico.

Lopez said that while barrier island restoration is an effective strategy for combating coastal erosion and protecting wetlands, each island has its own particular conditions. The interactions with the Gulf, the shape of the island, how far it has degraded and whether or not there is a source of sand all come into play.

“All of these things have to be looked at and projects have to be tailored to the characteristics of the particular island,” said Lopez.

A Few More Years of Life

Some of the BP funds would be used to rebuild Pelican Island, Scofield Island and possibly the quickly-disappearing Shell Island or a segment of Chenier Ronquille.

Bringing in heavy equipment and pumping in sand is not without environmental consequences. While dredging for sand berm construction over the summer it was reported that a number of sea turtles were killed. Nevertheless, most experts say that the alternative of doing nothing would bring worse consequences. Lopez said such projects need to closely examine where they are taking their sand from, how it is being moved and how they are being rebuilt.

“Ten years from now there may be no habitat for the turtles to go to. In one hurricane season [some of these islands] could be gone. If nothing else, I think it could give the islands at least a few more years of life,” said Lopez.

Randy Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, said that being able to use BP money for such restoration projects is a positive thing. Prior to the Gulf oil disaster, such a project would likely have not been cost effective but now that sand is already in place and funds are available, it may present a rare opportunity to rebuild such an area.

“Ecologically, as long as they are conforming to the natural structure of the barriers islands that preexisted out there, yes, this is a good thing. With the BP funding it is a lot more feasible now,” said Lanctot.

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