Humans have no more than a decade left to act before the ongoing loss of Louisiana's coastline becomes irreversible.
So conclude the experts in the first installment of a multipart series on coastal land loss that the New Orleans Times-Picayune began running yesterday:
Unless, within 10 years, the state begins creating more wetlands than it is losing -- a task that will require billions of dollars in complex and politically sensitive projects -- scientists said a series of catastrophes could begin to unfold over the next decade.
These catastrophes would include Gulf waves breaking over suburban lawns, the forced abandonment of many outlying communities, the intensified battering of the nation's energy infrastructure, complete inundation of levees built to withstand only brief storm surges, and south-approaching tropical storms slamming into the city of New Orleans as though it were beachfront property.
The impact would hardly be limited to Louisiana, the paper warns:
The entire nation would reel from the losses. The state's coastal wetlands, the largest in the continental United States, nourish huge industries that serve all Americans, not just residents of southeastern Louisiana. Twenty-seven percent of America's oil and 30 percent of its gas travels through the state's coast, serving half of the nation's refinery capacity, an infrastructure that few other states would welcome and that would take years to relocate. Ports along the Mississippi River, including the giant Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana in LaPlace, handle 56 percent of the nation's grain shipments. And the estuaries now rapidly turning to open water produce half of the nation's wild shrimp crop and about a third of its oysters and blue claw crabs. Studies show destruction of the wetlands protecting the infrastructure serving those industries would put $103 billion in assets at risk.
Unfortunately, while various coastal restoration initiatives have been launched during the past 20 years, no project capable of reversing the loss is currently in line for approval, the paper reports.
As we noted in our report titled "A New Agenda for the Gulf" released last week for the 18-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (a storm whose effects underscored the urgency of Louisiana's land-loss problem), a lack of federal leadership has impeded Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts. Inadequate action on Washington's part is also hampering coastal restoration, the Times-Picayune notes:
Congress provided a note of hope last year, voting the state a permanent 37.5 percent slice of offshore oil revenues for coastal restoration work. But full financing -- some $650 million annually -- won't kick in until 2017. During the critical next decade, the state will be receiving only about $20 million a year, a pittance in the face of a problem that will require tens of billions of dollars to solve.
If there's anything positive to be found in all this worrisome news, perhaps it's that Louisiana's coastal land-loss problem is finally getting the attention it deserves. Besides the Times-Picayune's series, Yahoo's Assignment Earth recently posted a piece about the problem, which it documented with the help of the folks at the Gulf Restoration Network.
But ultimately, reporting the problem is not going to fix it. Let's hope that these much-needed efforts to detail the land-loss crisis spark some decisive action before it's too late.