Louisiana is losing a football field every hour from its coastal marshes. It’s barrier islands and coastal marshes are Louisiana’s first line of defense against hurricanes.
Ivor van Heerden, a coastal scientist at Louisiana State University, put Louisiana’s coastal dilemma very succinctly: “Barrier islands protect the wetlands. The wetlands protect the levees. The levees protect the home.”
While Gustav blew roofs off the houses in Houma, Louisiana, and turned out the lights as far north as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it did not flood the little towns on Louisiana’s coastal bayous. It did not because, Gustav tracked across Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which acted as speed bumps and took the energy out of its storm surge. The hurricane came ashore at Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only occupied barrier island. That was the first speed bump. Then it tracked across the wetlands in the Barataria Basin, what coastal scientists call the Barataria Landbridge, the marshes that lie between Barataria Bay to the south and the fresh marshes and cypress swamps to the north. What was left, when it reached Houma, was wind, lots of wind and rain, but no flooding in the bayous.
Until Katrina and Rita, Louisiana kept hurricane protection from ecosystem restoration in two separate boxes. That is changing.
In January 2006, the Working Group for Post-Hurricane Planning for the Louisiana Coast, an independent group of scientists and engineers published a study that insisted that planning for hurricane protection, navigation, and coastal restoration must be done in concert rather than isolation, as had been the case up until Katrina. Protecting New Orleans must include a combination of levees and a sustainable coastal landscape. The group postulated that a sustainable Louisiana coast could be done with an efficient use of the Mississippi’s resources.
In August 2007, a group of coastal scientists and engineers issued their report titled, Comprehensive Recommendations Supporting the Use of the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy to Sustain Coastal Louisiana. Their strategy was a planning tool that set priorities and coordinated restoration methods and coastal habitat and flood protection projects. The report acknowledged the importance of flood protection, both engineered and coastal habitat restoration, but with an emphasis on wetlands as flood protection. For example: most hurricane levees are adjacent to fresh water environments. Therefore, to protect the levees from wind and water, cypress forests should be planted out front of the levees.
Louisiana’s coastal wetlands buffer storms. They protect valuable natural infrastructure and absorb nutrients, sediment, and contaminants. They serve as the breeding, spawning, feeding, and nursery grounds for fish and shellfish at some time in their life cycles. Summer flounder, spotted seatrout, snook, tarpon, and others spawn in the Gulf, migrate to their freshwater nurseries in the summer, and return to the Gulf when temperatures drop in the fall. So do juvenile brown and white shrimp.
Migratory birds rest on Louisiana’s barrier islands on their annual migration from Central and South America. Waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds colonize its freshwater marshes, attracted by their diverse menu of fish and vegetation. The marshes provide habitat for the endangered brown pelican and bald eagles. Furbears–nutria, muskrat, mink, raccoon, otter, bobcat, beaver, coyote, and opossum–thrive in the marshlands. The American alligator–once endangered, now abundant–nests along the banks of coastal freshwater marshes.
Louisiana’s commercial fishermen harvest 1.1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish up to twenty percent of the nation’s catch, valued at $2.2 billion a year to Louisiana’s economy. Recreational anglers contribute $944 million. More than forty percent of the nation’s fur harvest comes from Louisiana. Louisiana’s alligator farmers harvest $9.3 million in skin and meat.
Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are more productive than many agricultural lands. If the loss, commercial and recreational fish would decline by 30%. Migratory birds dependent on the marshes might decline, having an impact on the rest of the country, on duck hunters, on bird watchers. Fur trappers would see the loss of a $1.3 million industry. Alligator meat might once again become a delicacy.