Areas gone on NOAA charts

Yellow Cotton Bay, officially, no longer exists.

The bay, along with Bayou Jacquin and 29 other places in Plaquemines Parish, have been lost from Louisiana’s shrinking coast.

And now they are no longer listed on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts.

Despite decades of discussion about the problem in Louisiana, coastal land loss can be an abstract idea for people who don’t live in those areas.

“So many people don’t get it because they look at this as a bird and fish problem,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities.

The loss of those 31 place names from the NOAA charts, Graves said, “really goes to show how real this threat is to our culture and many communities in south Louisiana.”

“People get tied to places,” said Mel Landry III, a marine habitat resource specialist with the NOAA Restoration Center. “When you say ‘I used to fish trout in Yellow Cotton Bay’ and you may be across the country and you hear Yellow Cotton Bay is gone, that means something.”

Officials are not too sure exactly when these places disappeared. The shoreline surveys that provided the information for the updated NOAA charts were prompted by the 2005 hurricane season, but the charts likely reflect larger changes.

The charts, or portions of them, are periodically updated. Meredith Westington, chief geographer with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, said sometimes only a certain type of information in a chart is updated.

“This is just sort of the beginning” of the shoreline updates, she said, noting that more charts will be coming out this year. And it’s possible more place names may be taken off the NOAA charts.

The 31 names removed thus far will be moved to a “historical” category. Despite restoration projects being planned or built in Plaquemines Parish, it’s unlikely any of those 31 place names will be returned to the charts.

Projects generally aren’t planned for or built in open water, given the limited funds available for coastal restoration, said Landry, the marine habitat specialist.

“The likelihood of us going into these areas with a pipeline or dredge to rebuild land isn’t good,” he said.

Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of land since the 1930s and is currently losing more than 16 square miles per year, according to the state’s master plan for coastal restoration and restoration.

There are a number of factors for that loss. Levees constructed along the Mississippi River for navigation and flood control have starved the Louisiana coast of the sediment that rebuilt land as the river delta naturally sank.

“It starts with the subsidence,” Landry said.

Subsidence, or the natural sinking of the land, creates pockets of water within the marsh. As tides move in and out of the area, further erosion occurs. New ponds and lakes get larger, and eventually the separation between the bodies of water disappear. That open water leads to rough wave action, which exacerbates the erosion.

As areas that were once marsh become open water, daily tides push more water in and out of the inland marshes, leading to even more erosion, Landry said.

Some coastal restoration projects are either under construction or in the planning stage in the general area where the 31 place names have been removed.

Graves, the state coastal protection authority chairman, said without the work, more names will disappear from the maps.

“We’re on a trajectory to have communities wiped off the map without aggressive action,” he said.

Restoration at Pelican Island and Scofield Island, both barrier islands, continues, as does marsh creation work farther north in Plaquemines Parish, he said.

That builds on the work completed in the past several years at barrier islands such as Bay Joe Wise and East Grand Terre, he said. At the same time, levees and other types of protection for communities, like elevating homes, are included in the state’s coastal restoration and protection master plan.

The land loss in Plaquemines Parish is no surprise to Parish President Billy Nungesser. The latest NOAA chart, he says, “just makes it hit home.”

He noted the loss was accelerated in some areas by the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster in 2010, which flooded large stretches of the parish’s coast with oil.

One of the areas the parish has been working to restore is a small set of islands known as Cat Island. Although they had been eroding for years, when the 2010 oil spill hit, they were still a viable bird nesting habitat.

The oiled islands have been reduced to mere spits of land so packed with birds that many are nesting on the ground. It’s only a matter of time before a high tide or storm washes over them, Nungesser said.

He said the loss of place names signifies many other problems: reduced storm surge protection, increased flood insurance premiums, a heightened threat to public safety and harm to fish and wildlife.

The parish is planning to build 8-foot ridges to help protect the levees in the parish from storms, Nungesser said. The parish is moving ahead with the project, he said, despite fears from some people that the ridges are too high and may hurt the environment.

He said computer modeling has shown that smaller ridges don’t have an effect on storm surge and wouldn’t survive the storms.

“Build those high ridges and protect the marsh behind it,” he said.

With limited money available for restoration and protection work, he said, every dollar needs to count and go toward the best, longest-lasting projects. That’s especially true for the fines and penalties expected to be paid by BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, money that could be used for such projects, he noted.

“We’re not going to get a second chance at BP money,” Nungesser said.