Stemming the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands will take not only science and engineering but also billions of dollars and a national commitment that the work is worth doing.
With the uncertainties involved in a statewide effort, a number of nonprofit coastal groups set out to answer some of the questions about the future of Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts.
On Tuesday, a team of scientists met at LSU to discuss findings on 10 questions, including whether it’s possible to restore portions of the coast, should the work be a national priority, and how the restoration would affect the people who live and work in the area.
This science and engineering team was put together through the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign. The campaign is a joint effort of environmental groups such as Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
The team’s report about the Mississippi River delta became the focus of the two-day conference at LSU continuing Wednesday.
One of the questions involves whether freshwater and sediment diversions from the Mississippi River into surrounding marsh areas will harm fisheries.
Louisiana accounts for 75 percent of the seafood brought ashore from the Gulf Coast, said Jim Cowan, professor in the department of Oceanography and Coastal Studies at LSU. Despite continued land loss, he said, the seafood haul in the state hasn’t diminished, at least not yet.
Some scientists believe while marsh is degrading, more edges are exposed that can be used for fish habitat, Cowan said. Once it degrades too far, however, that benefit drops, because the area becomes primarily open water that has little benefit to fish that need an estuary.
Coastal restoration work and diversions give the opportunity to slow down and stop land loss in some areas and provide stable habitat, the report says.
According to the state’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection, land gains will be seen much sooner if the plan is implemented, but that won’t happen in a year or two.
In the meantime, people living in coastal communities are continuing to adapt to changing coastal conditions, said Conner Bailey, professor of rural sociology at Auburn University.
Residents in Louisiana, more than other places in the country, stay in one place and don’t move around much, he said. According to census information, this coastal population lives in rural settings, and includes a high number of homeowners and a high percentage of people who have lived in the same house for five years or more, he said.
Loss of coastal land and repeated flooding in some areas of the coast, however, has prompted some population shift, he said.
He used Plaquemines Parish census data to show that while fewer people live in the southern part of the parish, the northern part has seen population increases.
“What we have is a population that is gradually retreating,” Bailey said.
More information about the report is available at www.mississippiriverdelta.org.