Louisiana's ambitious coastal vision

03-11-2012 // Neela Banerjee - The Los Angeles Times

This excerpt is from The Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Venice, La.— On an unseasonably warm winter morning, Earl Armstrong Jr. eases his airboat out of the slip, past a fishing crew hacking up a shark on the pier and a canal strung with hunting camps on stilts, into the broad waters of West Bay.

Armstrong, 67, kills the airboat's engine and, looking around, remembers a place nothing like this one.

"You couldn't travel through here before by boat," he says, looking at the vast water broken by a couple of small, grassy islands. "Used to be woods here when I was little, that's how thick it was. The grown-ups used to scare us by telling us there were tigers and lions up in here, but we came anyway."

The sea took the forests and marshes of West Bay, leaving mostly open water, as it has along hundreds of square miles of Louisiana's coastline over the last century. But now Louisiana may be about to embark on a highly ambitious project to keep its coast from slipping further underwater, and even restore some of it.

Eighty years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built massive levees to protect New Orleans and its surroundings from the annual floods of the nation's longest river. But the levees did their job too well, because they also blocked the silt that came downriver from the nation's heartland and replenished the marshes like the one Armstrong remembers so well. That left the sinking Mississippi Delta defenseless against the slower but inexorable onslaught of rising seas brought about by climate change.

Now Louisiana is proposing to cut those levees in places to allow the Mississippi River's silt to once again find its home, while building new dikes to protect coastal communities.

The 50-year, $50-billion draft master plan, which will be put before the state Legislature on March 26 and likely would need financial help from Washington, envisions sluices in the Mississippi River's levees to allow sediment to flow into the delta again and restore land. It calls for the large-scale restoration of wetlands and erecting levees from Lake Charles in the west to New Orleans in the east.

The plan could serve as a model for communities around the world facing the ravages of global warming. It would be "one of first major efforts to deal with the reality of a changing environment," said Mark Davis, director of Tulane University's Institute of Water Resources Law and Policy. "This is the challenge the rest of the country will be facing too, whether they're coastal communities dealing with sea level rise or inland ones figuring out where they will find water."


On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would direct 80% of Clean Water Act penalties connected with the spill to the gulf states.

The best example of what might happen in the bays south of New Orleans if the river is allowed to run can be found in a corner of West Bay. Earl Armstrong takes his boat toward a spot about 600 yards from the Mississippi River and beaches it on an island, one of four that have emerged in what was 5 feet of water thanks to a cut in the levee made in 2003.

Armstrong hops onto the sand with David Muth, Louisiana director for the National Wildlife Federation. The land began to build about two years ago, Armstrong said, and already, 3-foot willow saplings rise. Least sandpipers visiting from the Arctic skitter by the waterline. New cattails have been shorn by hungry geese and nutria rats. Scientists say the freshwater from the river will push shrimp and oyster fisheries farther out to sea, but not kill the industry.

"The planners, engineers and scientists are feeling their way through different aspects of the plan," Muth said, "but the only thing we know for certain is that the river can build a delta."

Read more