Experts: Louisiana’s wetlands crisis is getting much worse


Some days it seems like our politicians are living in a dream world. A couple of days ago, I told you about Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal and his craven approval of badly written legislation that will a) do the bidding of his Big Oil and Gas campaign donors and kill a lawsuit that would require 97 large companies to spend billions to restore the coastal wetlands they destroyed and b) was so poorly drafted that the measure will also hamper efforts to recover money from BP and other Gulf polluters.

What was particularly galling is that Jindal’s cynical move pretended that the issue at the heart of this matter — the wanton destruction of marshes and coastal areas that protect Louisiana’s citizens from our frequent hurricanes — isn’t even a crisis. But this same week, policy matters gathered in Washington to talk about the Mississippi Delta — not just the manmade carving up of southern Louisiana’s wetlands — but broader issues related to the waterway that is the state’s throbbing main artery.

The picture painted by these experts was not a pretty one:

WASHINGTON — Decades of shortsighted decisions by industry and government have put the Mississippi River’s future at risk, and degradation at its southern Louisiana delta is contributing to “the greatest land loss on the planet,” a five-state environmental coalition warned Wednesday.

As much as $50 billion will be needed to secure Louisiana’s port system, but “there is no hope in the current budget of the United States. Zero,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who addressed a diverse group of political, environmental and private-sector leaders at a conference in Washington on the river’s future.

Despite a $14 billion federal infusion after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the state in 2005, Landrieu said, southern Louisiana is losing land masses the size of the nation’s capital to the Gulf of Mexico every year.

The attendees at the conference — who came from the states and cities that line the nation’s longest and arguably most important river — agreed that if policy makers don’t act now, and in a coordinated way, New Orleans could eventually find itself under water. I should note that the degradation of the Mississippi comes on top of the threat of rising sea levels that is created by manmade global warming. The experts did a good job cataloguing the threats to the river and especially to Louisiana: 

    • The construction of locks and dams along the river to control flooding and facilitate shipping has resulted in a glut of silt along its northern stretches, reducing the flow of crucial, nutrient-containing sediments to the delta and impairing the growth of wetlands that shield the coast.
    • Agricultural runoff has polluted the river with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that are running into the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to an oxygen-depleted zone that can’t support marine life.
    • Levees along the river have severed its connections to floodplains, reducing their water-retention capabilities and exacerbating floods and droughts.

Yet as we’ve seen repeatedly, our policy makers do a much better job at identifying the problems than coming up with a solution, especially when a resolution will require a) money and b) political will and a spirit of sacrifice involving special interests, which in this case include not only Big Oil and Gas but also agribusiness and state and local governments that are already tapped out these days. One necessary move, it’s noted, is a shift that would keep the silt that’s flowing deep into the Gulf, past the continental shelf, closer to shore to help replenish the wetlands.

Sen. Landrieu, at the hearing, suggest diverting some of the money that oil and gas companies are paying for new offshore oil leases to pay for environmental programs. That would be a start. But this is also a reminder that the levee board’s lawsuit that was killed by the big money in Baton Rouge was absolutely the right thing to do. Big Oil and Gas has made billions of dollars in profits off Louisiana’s bounty of natural resources, and yet they’ve treated our environment like one big garbage can. They can certainly pay back a small portion of those profits to clean up their mess.

To read more about the Mississippi River conference that was held in Washington this week, please read:

Check out my June 10 blog post on Bobby Jindal’s folly:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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