Defending What's Left
Coastal erosion, worsened by climate change and human development, has already led to disaster in Louisiana. But multiple efforts to slow the onslaught are underway.
Gulf of Mexico
Gulf of Mexico
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s devastating floodwaters surged up a channel just outside New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, where a cypress forest had stood until the 1960s. It was one example of how the loss of Louisiana’s coastal marshes is affecting the lives of the people who live nearby. The state is spending billions to restore coastal land. But this plan, too, has consequences — this time, for the people who have made their living on the waters for generations.
Arthur Johnson – CEO, Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development
“Prior to Katrina, this was, this was people’s homes.
“Probably the worst storm we’ve ever seen with loss of life and disaster.
“It took lives. It took a lot of lives.
“It was the breach of the levees when the water started to rise and rise and rise and did not stop rising.”
Rollin Black – Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development
“The water was just up to, you know, up into most of those roofs and most of the attics.”
“Then people were on roofs. They were trying to cut holes in the roofs to get, to be protected and look for rescue.
“Truly a massive disaster that’s caused by the hurricane but also caused by, I would say, caused by man as well.
“We weren’t prepared. If we have had,
“I guess, more consciousness or concern, we may not have lost, we shouldn’t have lost as many lives as we lost. And if we don’t do something, then this could happen again. And then New Orleans will be where the coast is, on the coast of [the Gulf of] Mexico. And so, we have to build back land but we have to also slow down the deterioration that we’re causing, abusing the land for our future.”
The New Orleans skyline, seen from above the remains of a cypress forest outside the Lower 9th Ward. New Orleans is vulnerable to severe flooding due to hurricane storm surges and the loss of coastal wetlands. (VOA News)
Greg Grandy – Deputy Executive Director, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
“The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is a state agency. We were formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to develop a coastal master plan to protect our coastal communities and to restore the ecosystem in coastal Louisiana. We’ve been losing significant amounts of our wetlands. This land loss, this crisis is due to natural and man-made causes. Subsidence [land sinking] is one of the factors. At the same time right now, the sea is rising due to climate change. In addition, we’ve also had other man-made causes: the leveeing of the Mississippi River. The river is no longer connected to the delta plain. And then we’ve also had impacts over the years, when oil and gas companies were digging canals to access areas for production of oil and gas.
“There are a number of different strategies that we use to restore our coast and protect our coastal communities moving forward. From marsh creation or land building to barrier island restoration to shoreline protection to reconnecting the river, whether it’s freshwater diversions or sediment diversions. And then, at the same time, we also work on protection projects to complete the hurricane protection systems that protect the New Orleans metropolitan area.”
“Here we have the port of New Orleans, so…
“A levee is nothing but a hill, a bunker to prevent the water, which is on the other side, which is the Mississippi River, from coming over here.
“When that water comes down, what it does is it hits that and it starts moving, you know, it goes to wherever it can go.
“So, if you have trees there, it’s going to soak up some of that and it’s going to slow down the rain and the flash flooding and protections. And one of the things we’re doing is coastal restoration.”
“And so, we have here about 500 trees. And so, when these cypress(s) are put up or these trees are put up on that barrier along the levee, it helps with the levee to break down the wind, to break down the water surge. If there is a hurricane or a tropical storm coming in, it allows to have this barrier between the storm and the community. So, we call it multiple lines of defense. Yeah, we have planted over 2,000 trees so far.”
“You all are doing a good job. I know you had a busy day today. You’re seeing the difference, you know. You’re making an impact and that’s important.”
“So, right here you can see one of the stumps from what was a cypress tree. So, all of the lower-lying areas with cypress trees and all of those just died out.”
Christina Lehew – Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development
“The fact that this is open water is just the evidence of ecological devastation. Open water becomes a pathway to let in more water.”
“This was actually a flourishing cypress tree farm. So, it’s going to take years for it to actually repair, the nature to repair itself. But, you know, by us planting trees along those banks, we can kind of have a start.”
“We just put a couple dozen trees at a time on all of our kayaks and we bring little shovels and we plant them. How many did we plant this year, in the spring? It was less than a hundred.”
“These coastal restoration tools that we do will help climate change. Now, it won’t stop it but it’ll slow it down.”
Pelicans on Queen Bess Island, Aug. 7, 2021. The birds are back thanks to a restoration project carried out by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. (VOA News)
Katie Freer-Leonards – Project Management, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
“So, we’re right here on Queen Bess Island. It’s almost in the Gulf of Mexico. This island actually serves as a nesting ground for a wide range of species.”
Todd Baker – Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
“Those brown pelicans getting about as old as they can be. Mama hadn’t quite kicked them out yet but she’s well on her way to getting those out in there.
“When it comes to coastal land loss and the need for restoration, these birds are on the front line. They experience it much like the people who live throughout coastal Louisiana. We’ve lost 50% of our brown pelican colonies since 2010, over 50%.”
“Subsidence, erosion from overwash were the main factors that were leading to the deterioration of this island. So, in 2017, we started that project to focus on restoring, prioritizing the nesting functionality of the island.
“We need habitat restoration like this that focuses in on certain types of species and what they need to be able to maintain a healthy, diverse ecosystem. It’s all part of restoring the coast.
“We installed these all the way around the island to just better protect it from wave-driven erosion. But we also wanted to promote the type of vegetation that brown pelicans and similar birds like to nest in. So, all the plants that we see in the background, the vast majority of them are ones that we planted. We came through and we planted thousands of plants.
“At the tail end of construction, we came and we pulled up and Todd was nervous. He was really hoping that the pelicans would come back and they would nest again.
“And so, we got off the boat down on the south side of the island and Todd could see with his binoculars way down, far from all the construction activity, he could see birds flying around, one that had a stick in its mouth. And so, he just jumped up in the air. He’s like, ‘They’re nesting. They’re nesting. It worked.’ So, it was really exciting.”
DIVERSIONS (reconnecting waterways)
Captain Ryan Lambert – Cajun Fishing Adventures
“I’ve watched Louisiana disappear for now 43 years. So, now it’s time to do everything you can and give the rest of your life to try to save it. That’s where we’re at now.
“Actually, the biggest culprit is the fact that we built levees and stopped the river from delivering sediment and fresh water into the estuary like it did for eons. That’s what built this. Since we built the levees, now we’ve lost 2,400 square miles [6,200 km²] so far. That’s larger than [the US state of] Delaware. That’s larger than the Grand Canyon. Since Katrina, we’ve lost over 200 square miles [500 km²] of land between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans. And look how bad it was then. Just think how bad is going to be the next one if it happens before we do something.
“We can reverse it. We just have to open the river up and build some ridges with those diversions and keep that fresh water pumping. And the only way we can do that is to reintroduce the river and bring back the estuary to what it was.”
Bren Haase – Executive Director, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
“So, this is some of the newest land in the United States of America, right here.”
Fishing guide Ryan Lambert navigates through one of the few natural diversions in southeast Louisiana, Aug. 3, 2021. Lambert hopes it will set an example for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project. (VOA News)
Captain Ryan Lambert
“This was a(n) open bay. Two years ago, it was completely open right here and look at it already. All we did was build a crevasse and build some terraces to where it slows it down when it hits it. And when it swirls up, boom, it builds land instantly. Look at these willow trees. How big they are already. Wow, look at it. Absolutely amazing that this happened this quick. Because we had a naturally occurring diversion, we have water coming from the Mississippi River. And that’s the secret to everything, is the Mississippi River. I mean, it’s laden with sediment. It’s got fresh water to keep the salt water at bay and it just builds. Instead of losing a quarter of an inch [6mm] a year, we gain an eighth of an inch [3mm]. Wow, this is just amazing.”
“The Mississippi River drains about two thirds of the United States. So, we’ve got little parts of [the US states of] Iowa and Minnesota and North Dakota floating in the water right here. So, that sediment is being trapped by this vegetation here. And that’s what’s helping increase the bottom elevation and ultimately ending up in elevations that’ll support things like willow trees over there. And ultimately, in the future, hopefully, there’ll be cypress trees and things like that, a swamp here like there once was. So, from an ecological perspective, it’s tremendously important for the birds, the fish, the other wildlife. But it also helps to provide storm surge protections.
“Yeah, to think that these trees are less than a year old is pretty amazing. It shows you the power and the nutrients and the fertilizer essentially that the river has in it. You can imagine a storm surge coming from, this is sort of a miniature example, but coming from the open water this way as it’s approaching our coast. If it’s cast to pass through these trees before it can get to the communities on the other side of it, that’s a much better thing than, of course, if they weren’t here.”
Captain Ryan Lambert
“This is part of the project we did with Ducks Unlimited. It’s a NAWCA [North American Wetlands Conservation Act] project. In just seven months, we did this. What can we do with a larger scale project?”
SEDIMENT DIVERSIONS – Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion
Captain Ryan Lambert
“That’s why I’m so adamant about Mid-Barataria [Sediment Diversion project] and how we have to make the west side start growing like the east side. It’s going to be incredible. I just hope I live long enough to see it all.
“Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project is really a cornerstone project of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan. The idea behind that project is to reconnect the Mississippi River with its coastal ecosystem, with its coastal wetlands, so they can do more work like you’re seeing right here today. Key difference is the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion would be a gated, controlled structure, so you could open it, you could close it, you can control the flows versus letting the river run free, essentially.”
Captain Ryan Lambert
“I think Mid-Barataria is going to protect New Orleans. These are going to build that marsh infrastructure between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the only way we can live here. There’s no way we can survive if we don’t do this.”
“Let’s be clear. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project is a mitigation project. Is that going to change things? Is that going to impact people? Of course, it will. And we’ve been very transparent about that and we do have a plan and funds available to try to assist, to ease those changes, ease transitions.”
Fisherman Adam Donahue and his crew getting ready for a shrimp fishing expedition Buras, La., Aug. 3, 2021. (VOA News)
Brad Robin – Oyster Dealer
“Stop for a second.
“Pretty. Beautiful oyster. Gorgeous. Good job.
“I am a(n) oyster dealer, all my life. Produced oysters for the last 50 years. The Mid-Barataria Diversion is going to wipe out this industry. Because fresh water, way too much fresh water. A(n) oyster needs both styles of water, fresh water and salt water. Too much fresh water, it’ll wipe out everything. It’ll wipe out our ecosystem of the Gulf, kill 80-90% of our products, sometimes 100%. That’s what we face.”
Michael Bagel Jr. – Commercial Fisherman
“It’s going to hurt me badly. It’s going to hurt the seafood industry terribly. We might not be fishermen no more. It’s hard enough in this industry, you know.”
Adam Donahue – Commercial Fisherman
“Listen to me. I ain’t no scientist. I didn’t even go to high school. I know how to catch shrimp. I know what shrimp like. I know what it takes to feed my family. You put a diversion right there, I’m going be the man at Walmart [American department store] saying, ‘Thank you for shopping.’”
Kimmie Sergine – Commercial Fisherman
“The Mississippi River drains….I want to say it’s 32 states and two Canadian provinces….of fertilizer, nitrates from all these corn-growing, crop-growing states. So, how can it be in this state’s best interest to allow river water from the second, most polluted river in the US to flow into the most seafood-productive estuary in the United States? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Brad Barth – Program Manager, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
“There may be short-term impacts and there’s a lot of folks that they’re going to potentially have some increased distances involved with where they have to go and fish. If the project is ultimately funded, that’s a guaranteed amount of money on there and a guaranteed process to work on what methods can we help in that change and transition on there.
“Well, if we don’t do anything, this estuary is going to die. It’s collapsing now. It’s going to go away. And all those things that it supports: the fish, the wildlife, the culture, the heritage that’s built off of the productivity of this estuary, is going to go away. And the communities that live in and around this estuary are going to be much, much more vulnerable to climate change, to increased storm surges, to increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes. So, it’s really an existential issue for coastal Louisiana.”
“Good. Which one we’re going to start first?”
“Bushels? Alright. We’ll start with the bushels first.”
“How much money did they set aside? Not a lot to buy this industry out. And do I want them to buy me out? Not really. I love what I do and I do what I love. I’m very successful at what I’m doing. I want to keep on for my kids and his kids to be in this industry. I want to build land. But there’s other ways. But not at the cost of what we did, our livelihood. What would work is pumping sediment by pipelines and build these islands up and slow down this water and have an industry in between.”
Michael Bagel Jr.
“I mean, I think they need to focus on dredging.”
“They need to dredge. You could get out and walk the ground. You know, it’s proven.”
“So, this is dredging. So, there’s a dredge that’s about four and a half miles [7 km] away from the island. You can see the pipes. It’s delivering sand to this island. And so, what we’re trying to do is put back in place the beach and dune that was there as well as the marsh that’s on the back side.
“Dredging is one of the tools that we use to build land. Our Coastal Master Plan right now, of the 50-billion-dollar Coastal Master Plan, almost 18 billion dollars are for dredging and we will continue to do those projects. From a long-term standpoint, dredging alone won’t be able to help us restoring the ecosystem and protecting our coastal communities.”
“Yes. So, we’re at a point now in coastal Louisiana where we can’t afford to leave any tool unused, right? So, there’s not a, we can only dredge and be successful or we can only do river diversions and be successful or we can only do barrier islands and be successful. It’s got to be a combination of all of those things to be able to sustain and maintain as much as we possibly can of coastal Louisiana.”
Jessica Ellender Theriot – Former Coastal Louisiana Resident
Jessica Ellender Theriot
“My grandfather established Leeville. He had a store. His home and his store was in the same building. They was living off the land. People lived off the land, off the seafood. My mother told wonderful stories of how they was raised in a(n) old house right by the bayou. And they would fish and they would hunt and they played in the water and they swam. They lived in these bayous. She talked about the oak trees with moss. That’s not what I’m seeing. It just really has eroded and it’s just sad to look at.”
Remains of an old cemetery in Leeville, La. that is now under water, Aug. 7, 2021. (VOA News)
“This is where all of my relatives were buried. My grandfather, cousins, in this cemetery, which was publicly opened up by my grandfather. It’s sad to see the graves down in the water. I mean, it’s just, I feel like the history is being lost. Grave sites, it’s how you find where people came from and where they migrated to. But our gulf is getting closer in all the time. My mother wouldn’t have seen those dolphins when she was a child. It brings you to the reality of how much the coast is coming further back inland. I have hope, though. I think they got great plans to change things but it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take some time. It didn’t happen overnight, so it’s not going to be fixed overnight.”