Louisiana can’t afford to do nothing about its shrinking wetlands


Restoring wetlands is certainly an expensive proposition. Even with monies available from sources such as the massive settlement that BP reached with Louisiana, the federal government and other Gulf states over the Deepwater Horizon spill, officials struggle to come up with all the funds needed to replenish coastline and bring back to life marshes and bayous that have been destroyed by energy exploration or damaged by pollution or other activities. The 50-year wetlands restoration program that Louisiana officials are promoting has a pricetag of $50 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but sometimes taxpayers, and their elected representatives, fail to calculate the larger cost of doing nothing.

Think about it. Remember the billions of dollars it took for New Orleans to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina? And most experts say the next major hurricane is likely to be worse as the wetlands — nature’s natural barrier of protection — continue to shrink. But with Louisiana much more prone than other locales to the effects of rising sea levels, our basic infrastructure will almost certainly take a hit as coastal losses accelerate. That means there’ll be washed out highways, bridges and pipelines, as well as the impact of increased flooding on local homes and businesses. Now, a study by experts at Louisiana State University has tried to place a dollar amount on those losses, and the numbers are staggering:

Without Louisiana’s $50 billion coastal protection and restoration master plan, the continued loss of land and wetlands could cost $3.6 billion in direct financial losses to homes, businesses and infrastructure over the next 50 years, according to study released Wednesday (March 22) by the Louisiana State University Economics & Policy Research Group. It says continued loss of coastal land would cost the state and national economy another $7.6 billion in lost wages, consumer spending and supply chain disruptions.

And it’s not just the shoreline. The study clearly shows that areas well inland of the coast will experience dramatic economic losses resulting from wetland and land erosion, even though they might not be directly threatened by hurricane storm surges, said Stephen Barnes, director of the research group and primary author of the study.

The worst financial effects would be in the New Orleans region, according to the study, with the Houma region close behind:

  • New Orleans — $1.7 billion in infrastructure replacement costs; $1.7 billion in business disruptions
  • Baton Rouge — $60 million in infrastructure replacement costs; $600 million in business disruptions
  • Houma — $1.4 billion in infrastructure replacement costs; $1.4 billion in business disruptions
  • Lafayette — $140 million in infrastructure replacement costs; $390 million in business disruptions
  • Lake Charles — $420 million in infrastructure replacement costs’ $490 million in business disruptions

Those totals do not include the potential costs from major hurricanes. The study says the next major hurricane that hits the state could be as costly or more costly than Hurricanes Katrina or Rita. A Katrina-like storm hitting the New Orleans area and the rest of eastern Louisiana cause direct damages totaling $138 billion to to businesses, residences and infrastructure, with another $53 billion lost from disrupted economic activity. A Rita-like storm hitting the Lake Charles area and other western parts of the state could cost $41.4 billion in direct damages and another $14.8 billion in economic losses.

In other words, just one Katrina-sized storm has to potential to cost the New Orleans area — and, ultimately, taxpayers — quite a bit more than the expense of the fairly ambitious restoration plan that environmental officials are pushing. Not rebuilding Louisiana’s wetlands would be the ultimate example of penny-wise but pound-foolish. Here’s hoping that lawmakers in Baton Rouge do the math this time and speed up the necessary work of wetlands restoration, before global warming or the next big storm sends the price of protection through the roof.

Read more about the LSU wetlands study from NOLA.com: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/03/50-year_land_loss_to_cost_112.html

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

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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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