By Jim Smilie
Louisiana has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land along the Gulf coast since 1932 and could lose another 4,200 square miles by 2050 if aggressive coastal restoration efforts are not enacted according to Rudy Simoneaux, chief of engineering with the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).
“Louisiana has already lost the equivalent of the state of Delaware,” Simoneaux told members of the Rotary Club of Alexandria Tuesday afternoon. “We could see that land loss rate double by 2050. We have data that shows the sea level is rising, and our ground is sinking. We have to do something.”
While Louisiana has been losing coastal marshland since the 1930s, when the levee system was built to control the flow of the Mississippi River, the issue “got a lot more high profile after the hurricanes of 2005,” he said, referring to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that ravaged the Louisiana coast causing billions of dollars in damage and wiping out significant areas of wetlands and barrier islands. “People see the damage done to homes and communities, but the natural buffers that protect the state are damaged too,” he said. “Barrier islands are incredibly important to the state. They are our first line of defense for storm surge.”
More recently, in 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall near Grand Isle destroying roughly 30,000 acres of marshland in that one event.
Noting the Mississippi River built the marshlands as it shifted its path centuries ago, Simoneaux said engineers are looking to the river to help rebuild the coast. “We are working to reconnect the river to the marshland,” he said. The plan is to dig a 2.5-mile-long canal from the Mississippi River to carry sediment from the river into the marsh. The 5-year, $2 million project is expected to restore 30,000 acres of marshland in Plaquemines Parish. “Sediment diversion is new. Nothing like this has been done anywhere else in the world,” he explained.
CPRA, which employs approximately 170 people, is budgeted to spend $1.74 billion on restoration projects in fiscal year 2024. Simoneaux said 85 percent of those dollars will go for construction costs. The bulk of the funding comes from the settlement with BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which accelerated land loss and destroyed estuarine habitats along the state’s coastline. “Only 15 percent of our funding comes from the state,” Simoneaux explained. “The rest comes from federal dollars and the BP settlement.” Noting the BP settlement funding runs out in 2032, Simoneaux said they are pushing to utilize as much of the funding as they can to do projects now.
The group is working from a master plan that calls for spending $50 billion over a 50-year span to rebuild as much of Louisiana’s coastal marshland as possible. “We know that we can’t rebuild everything that we have lost,” he said. “But if we are going to allow places like this to exist, we have to be aggressive.”
That approach includes projects like the sediment diversion efforts to rebuild marshland, relocation efforts where restoration isn’t feasible, and projects to raise homes and businesses above the water level. Since CPRA was established in 2007, they have restored 55,807 acres, or roughly 87.2 square miles of land. Simoneaux said they have moved more than 193 million cubic yards of sediment as fill, restored 71.6 miles of barrier islands, improved 369 miles of levees and secured $21.4 billion in funding.
In addition to protecting residents along the coast, where an estimated 2 million people live within 50 miles of the Louisiana coastline, Simoneaux noted economic and business interests need to be protected as well. Simoneaux said Louisiana is the nation’s seafood supplier. The state has the largest fish hatchery in the continental U.S., is the leading harvester of blue crab, shrimp, oysters and alligators and is the second-largest seafood supplier. Specifically, 70 percent of U.S. oysters are harvested in Louisiana, 66 percent of sport and commercial fish in the Gulf of Mexico are found in Louisiana and 95 percent of all marine species in the Gulf of Mexico are found in Louisiana.
As far as economic impact, 1 in every 70 jobs in Louisiana is related to fisheries and the industry generates $2.4 billion annually. He estimated $550 million is at stake annually in revenue losses to fisheries due to eroding wetlands by 2050.
Simoneaux said there has been some pushback from shrimpers over the impact current restoration efforts have had on their catches, but they are slowly understanding that something has to be done. “Shrimp need marshes to survive, to get the food and nutrients they need to live. So do redfish and crabs,” he said. “Without the work we are doing, there won’t be shrimp to catch. And we know, a shrimper can’t be relocated to Baton Rouge.” As a result, he said, the two groups have to work together to maintain that industry.
Oil and gas is another industry the group is working to protect. Referring to Louisiana as “the nation’s energy backbone,” Simoneaux explained the state ranks second for total energy, second for natural gas production and third for crude oil in the U.S. Louisiana houses 20 percent of the nation’s refining capacity, 25 percent of all petrochemicals production, 52 percent of all liquified natural gas exports. With 25,000 miles of natural gas interstate pipelines and 3,450 miles of crude pipelines, Louisiana handles 10-15 percent of all foreign and domestic oil and more than 95 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Energy Production.
“The resources below the ground in Louisiana fuel the nation, and if we don’t protect that, it will go away,” Simoneaux said.