Obama pledges to restore Gulf Coast, a region devastated by land loss, hurricanes

By Cain Burdeau, AP
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gulf Coast welcomes Obama’s pledge to restore land

NEW ORLEANS — After 50 years of watching wetlands created by the fertile Mississippi River turn into open water, Louisiana residents finally got what they’d long awaited: A U.S. president saying he’ll fight to save what little is left along their eroding coast.

Though details were vague, President Barack Obama’s pledge to restore the Gulf Coast’s degraded coast line has multibillion-dollar implications for the region’s culture and economy and could preserve wildlife endangered by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In an Oval Office address Tuesday night, Obama said he was committed to making sure southern Louisiana, which is hemorrhaging a football field of marshland every 38 minutes, and other coastline are saved.

“We need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region,” Obama said. “The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that has already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats.”

Obama appointed Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy and a former Mississippi governor, to lead the effort to develop a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan. Obama said he wanted BP to “pay for the impact this spill has had on the region.”

Coastal advocates have long said the human fabric and economic future of the Gulf Coast are at risk unless more aggressive steps are taken to inject freshwater sediment into Louisiana’s estuaries. About 2,300 square miles of marshland have been lost from the state’s coastline since the 1930s.

“Finally, we have someone at the highest level recognizing the significance of this issue and the significance of the pending tragedy, and just that is worth its weight in gold,” said R. King Milling, a banker who chairs Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coastal commission.

The Mississippi River built all of south Louisiana, including the fragile area on which the city of New Orleans sits, as it moved silt from the nation’s heartland to the coast, creating land. But the river has been channeled since the 1930s with massive flood control structures and levees, cutting off its natural flow tendencies.

Without a new feed of nutrients and fresh water, natural erosion processes that are worsened by powerful hurricanes have steadily worn down the coast from Atchafalaya Bay to New Orleans. Delicate wildlife estuaries that provided a buffer and kept the full force of hurricane storm surge ramming urban areas have all but vanished in some places.

“For us coastal Louisiana is on life support, and it will take more than a cleanup for it to survive,” said Val Marmillion, a founder of the America’s WETLAND campaign, an initiative to persuade the U.S. government to use more offshore drilling royalty taxes to shore up the coast.

Obama provided few details about how his administration would restore the coast. He noted that he had approved a plan by Louisiana officials to build new barrier islands to block oil coming ashore.

Experts believe the best way to rebuild the coast is to redirect the Mississippi River’s flow so that the river could mimic the way it once built up estuaries before the levees were erected.

Glen Swift, a fisherman and Arkansas native who came to Louisiana in the 1970s, said his marsh cannot be rebuilt unless the levees are taken down.

“They got it where the current (in the Mississippi) is so fast, it’s carrying all the sediment out to the Gulf,” Swift said. “The land’s disappearing so quick, it’s a man-made thing.”

In 1990, Congress passed the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, which allowed federal agencies to do about $50 million a year in small-scale restoration.

At the time, Louisiana had lost about 1,800 square miles of coastal wetlands, an area roughly the size of Delaware, according to U.S. Geological Survey maps.

Still, the loss has outpaced restoration. Since the 1990s, more than 400 square miles of wetlands have been lost, the USGS says.

Fixing Louisiana’s estuarine environment is estimated to cost between $10 billion and $50 billion. To do the costly work, Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian, said Obama could tap a share of the billions of dollars BP is expected to pay for damage caused by the oil spill. Obama was scheduled to meet with BP executives Wednesday to negotiate a deal on compensation for the fishermen and towns affected by its April 20 blowout of the 5,000-foot-deep well.

“They (the White House) need to attack the wetlands issue head on right now,” Brinkley said.

Rebuilding coastal Louisiana with river water and sediment has been studied for years and there are detailed plans on the shelf to ramp up conservation efforts.

Experts say one early effort could be to open a portion of the lower Mississippi River levee system. The break in the levee, known as a crevasse, would flush out oil and slowly help build land.

But allowing the river to run free of its channel also presents problems.

Louisiana’s coast is dotted with river diversion structures running below capacity — and in some cases left unused for years. Opposition from shippers, oystermen, towns and some ecologists has stymied the reintroduction of fresh, but polluted, Mississippi water and mud in the coastal system.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Robert Turner, the regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, a levee agency that oversees flood protection around New Orleans.

Over at least two generations, Louisiana residents have watched as places dear to them have turned into open water. It’s common to talk with 50-year-old fishermen who can point to places where ridges, airstrips, cemeteries and entire villages once stood.

Even New Orleans is at risk. Founded in 1718 on a high ridge next to the Mississippi, its growth for nearly 300 years has spread to the mushy ground once poured out by the Mississippi. Those coastal marshes are a first line of defense against massive storm surges driven in from the Gulf by hurricanes.

“If this country fails to understand the significance of this delta region, the damage to the area and the impacts of the citizens of this country will be astronomical,” Milling said.

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