We are losing what we love. Whether you are watching the chop breaking over what used to be the orange groves of Leeville, running full speed across what was once Bayou Auguste west of Buras, or in any of 10,000 hidden places in the Sportsman’s Paradise, the epic scale of land loss in the Louisiana Delta is no abstraction for the hunters and fishermen who know the place best.
We all know the dry facts of it, from every newspaper and magazine; “this is the fastest disappearing land mass on earth;” or “We’re losing a football field’s worth of land every hour;” and “13 to 19 square miles of wetlands lost every year.” But the words mean nothing compared to seeing the places you know and love disappear. It’s a wiping away of our own lives — here the gray duck hole where we shot with our grandfather, gone to salt and open water, there the camphouse where we had so many good times, reduced to a scatter of pilings, taken by storm surge that would have been soaked up by miles of marsh and chenier less than 20 years ago. Memories, history, redfish, teal and trout — the experiences that our kids and grandkids could have, the real freedom and treasures of the marshes and the bayous, replaced by open ocean.
It would be bad enough if this were just the way of the world, an unstoppable force of nature devouring our coast and with it our fishing, hunting, and what adds up to 40 percent of all the seafood harvested in the United States. But it is not just a force of nature. We caused the problem, first and foremost by leveeing the Mississippi River and shutting off the flow of fresh water and sediment to the marshes. What seemed like a good idea 100 years ago, when flood control was our only goal, is killing us today. And right now, we can start to fix it, using the mightiest piece of equipment known to man — the Mississippi River and the 22 million cubic yards of sand and rich heartland mud that it carries right by us every year. This is the same sand and mud that built southern Louisiana and is the lifeblood of the marshes that produce the feast of waterfowl and untold tons of fish and oysters that have brought human beings here like moths to a flame for thousands of years.
What are we doing with that lifeblood now? We spend $80 million to $100 million a year to dredge it out of Southwest Pass alone and let it pour off the Continental Shelf in the Gulf. We pay endless fortunes in taxpayer money to get rid of the one resource that is, in the case of southern Louisiana’s future, more precious than gold, and one that is delivered to us free of charge, every year, forever.
Nobody is saying that we can rebuild the 2,000 some-odd square miles of land and marsh lost over the past 80 years. There’s no turning the clock back, and we don’t need to, anyway. We just need to take action now, using the most powerful resources available to us — the mighty Mississippi current and the land it carries.
What does this mean, in simple terms? It means to create sediment diversions in specific places along the river, letting the river do what it has done so well for the past 7,000 years, which is build land. These sediment diversions are sited where they will produce the most bang for the buck — to restore marshes that act as critical storm buffers (as well as produce seafood and winter habitat for waterfowl) and to multiply the best effects of land-building operations conducted with dredging and slurry pipelines or whatever else we choose.
It’s an all-of-the-above strategy that combines everything we know about restoring marshes and building land and slowing or halting further land loss in the most important parts of the Delta. That is the muscle and bone of the Louisiana Master Plan, an ambitious 50 year, $50 billion visionary path forward that has already been vetted by some of the world’s most respected coastal restoration scientists and engineers.
The draft of the Master Plan went through an extensive public comment period where it drew overwhelming support from the people who are and will be most affected by whatever is to come: the people living and working on our coast. It is supported because it does not pretend to offer a silver bullet approach to solving a complex problem 100 years in the making. Instead the plan lays out a pragmatic suite of projects that will work together to stop land loss and start to rebuild and restore. It’s ambitious and large-scale, matched to the scale of the problem.
Fundamental to the success of the master plan is a series of 10 major diversions that will bring fresh water and sediment from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers into the marshes and basins where it is needed most. Unlike the land-building operations conducted by dredge and slurry pipelines, diversions mimic the natural processes of the rivers and create the kind of healthy marsh that in turn catches and holds more sediment, including the rich mix of seeds and loam. This is a compounding that eventually makes dry land and forests, the kind of landscapes that hold fast in the face of big storms and break the force of surge and salt water. A project like the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion, planned for the west bank of the Mississippi River near the community of Myrtle Grove, has the potential to build as much as 22 square miles of land over the next 20 years, using nothing but the power of the river itself.
When you have that kind of natural marsh and land building working in tandem with dredging and slurry pipeline operations that reinforce barrier islands and rebuild headlands, add-in a few projects to block the killing flow of salt water up crucial arteries like the Calcasieu River, you have a powerful brew that can cure the lethal ailment of losing land and all that goes with it.
Southern Louisiana is not doomed. We do not have to fiddle and argue as if we had all the time in the world, as one of the richest landscapes on earth melts into the bleak ocean. We have the plan, the money and the expertise to act now to keep what we cannot live without.