State of the Coast Conference Addresses Louisiana’s Deteriorating Coast

Representatives shared ideas and solutions for restoring Louisiana’s deteriorating coast.

07-10-2012 // Craig Guillot

More than 800 delegates met in New Orleans last month for the State of the Coast conference. Representatives from the science community, non-governmental organizations, universities, government agencies and private enterprises gathered to share ideas and solutions for restoring Louisiana’s deteriorating coast.

Organizers say the conference brought together critical industries and agencies to work toward comprehensive coastal restoration.  At a time when the RESTORE Act has brought about a heightened awareness of Louisiana’s ecological crisis and the potential for billions of dollars in funding restoration projects, innovative ideas may soon be put to work on the coast.

‘A unique moment in time’ for coastal restoration

State of the Coast was organized by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA). CRCL Director of Communications Scott Madere said the event serves as a meeting point to exchange ideas, technologies, methods and policies to rebuild Louisiana’s coast. Due to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the ongoing impacts of the oil disaster in 2010, Madere said there has been an increased awareness of the issues and more government incentive to do something about it.

“This is a unique moment in time where we have a high level of awareness, a potential for funding and a state master plan that has a coordinated strategy for the next 50 years. We’re at a point where we can make serious improvements on the coast,” Madere said.

Garrett Graves, chairman of Louisiana’s CPRA and one of the conference speakers said for the first time in decade’s things are “looking up” for coastal restoration because of the state’s new master plan and billions of dollars from a possible settlement over Gulf oil spill fines.

According to some estimates, BP could face as much as $21 billion in fines from the Clean Water Act for its responsibility in the Gulf oil disaster of 2010. The RESTORE Act, which recently passed in Congress, will direct 80 percent of those fines directly to areas affected by the disaster. Officials in Louisiana say the money is critically needed for restoration projects which are awaiting funding.

NWF Coastal Organizer Happy Johnson said NWF is a strong supporter of the legislation and that Louisiana’s coast is important to the entire nation. The state is home to 19 oil refineries and one of the four largest in the Western Hemisphere. The Port Fourchon area alone provides almost 20 percent of the country’s oil supply. Controlling access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River, New Orleans is also the country’s largest port in terms of cargo handled.

“What happens on the coast matters to the country in terms of homeland security and energy independence, and what takes place here has significant impacts on the east coast and west coast,” Johnson said.

Bringing together public and private sectors with universities

One unique aspect of the conference was that it brought together the public sector, private sector and local universities under one roof. Many believe that the rebuilding of Louisiana’s coast needs to be done with the support of all three.

Government can provide funding but it is often constrained by budgets and votes. Private enterprise can provide innovation but it is often constrained by short-term profitability and expenses. And while universities may be able to provide ideas and research, they do not have the power or authority to put plans into action.

“The government needs to know that it can rely on the technologies that are created by the private sector. The two can really work hand-in-hand,” Madere said.

Jeffrey Carney is the director of Louisiana State University’s Coastal Sustainability Studio (CSS), a project founded in 2009 as collaboration between the colleges of art and design, engineering and landscape architecture. Carney said bringing multiple disciplines to work together on sustainability solutions has resulted in unique ideas. The studio intensely studies and responds to the issues of settlement, coastal restoration, flood protection and the economy.

CSS has recently designed projects and conducted research for Bayou Bienvenue and the Lower 9th Ward, Barataria Basin, Lafourche Parish and Fort Proctor.

“A university can step outside and say, ‘This is what we need to look at 100 years down the road.’ It’s important in Louisiana where things are happening fast, but you need to have that long term vision,” said Carney.

Private sector can bring innovation

A number of companies from the private sector showcased their products and services at the conference. They ranged from nurseries that are growing marsh grasses to concrete companies that are producing modular blocks to be used in manmade reef construction.

Hesco, a main sponsor of the event, produces foldable and modular steel mesh units that can be used to help create reefs and prevent erosion. Originally made to be packed with sand and serve as safety barriers for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are outfitted with additional sections when placed in the wetlands. Those additional containers are then filled with oyster shells. Native vegetation is then planted on top.

Hesco senior technical representative Dennis Barkemeyer said over time the units can help build a “living shoreline,” which supports vegetation, oysters and habitat for fish and other wildlife. The solid barriers also serve as a strong defense against erosive wave action.

“You can create new habitat, have oyster growth and when this rusts away in five to seven years, you have a natural barrier reef,” Barkemeyer said.

Burt Brumfield, a marketing specialist with Delta Land Services, showcased a mesh bag filled with kiln-processed and hardened clay balls. With a modular design, it can be placed in the marsh or around a shoreline to provide a buffer for erosion. As sediment pours over the bags, it eventually creates a living buffer that can help spawn reef growth.

“It can be made into any footprint and is easy to move around. It's only two feet wide, weighs about 25 pounds and can be easily transported on boat or ATV," Brumfield said.

Madere said as with many other solutions, there’s a lot of prospect for innovation when profit is involved. He said many of the companies in the region see it as a win-win because they can make a profit while protecting critical resources in their own backyard.

“I feel very confident that over the next few decades Louisiana is actually going to be able to turn the tide and hold land loss at a standstill or maybe even gain land. It can happen as soon as 35 years from now,” Madere said.

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