Paradise Restored: Inside the Fight to Save Louisiana’s Wetlands

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By Gloria Gonzalez

An ambitious plan is underway in the US state of Louisiana to save its coastal wetlands, an effort that has yielded some early success in the form of several completed projects, including a barrier island rebuilding project on Pelican Island in Louisiana. But current funding levels fall far short of the $50 billion needed for coastal wetlands restoration projects, meaning that other sources of financing – including possibly the carbon markets – must be identified and accessed.

10 September 2014 | As we drive down a stretch of highway in southeastern Louisiana on our way to the Barrier Islands, it is disconcerting to see boats floating well above our eye levels on the Mississippi River – a stark reminder of the everyday danger faced by those living eight feet below sea level in the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area. The region is so vulnerable to storm surge that about six feet of nearby marshes displaced by the surge of Hurricane Isaac, a mere Category 1 storm, in 2012 took weeks to clear off the road we are traveling on.

On the way to Pelican Island

On the way to Pelican Island

Louisiana loses about a football field worth of wetlands every hour. Barring a major intervention, much of Southeastern Louisiana will sink into the Gulf of Mexico by 2100, in large part because of significant subsidence – the gradual caving in or sinking of an area of land – that is occurring, and rising sea levels. The subsidence is part natural, part due to decades of oil and gas extraction from under the Gulf, while sea level rise is mainly due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2012 Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast outlines the state’s plans to deal with the land loss crisis that has claimed 1,880 square miles of land since the 1930s and could claim an additional 1,750 square miles. The Master Plan, as it is commonly called, envisions $50 billion worth of projects designed to increase flood protection for communities.

Back to nature

The challenge often seems insurmountable, given that sea level rise continues to accelerate and is now responsible for about a third of land loss in the area. But the wetlands projects we are on our way to visit are crucial in helping keep pace with rising sea levels and restoring the natural hydrology of the area, said Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist for Climate and Land Use Change for the US Geological Survey.

Virginia Burkett

Virginia Burkett

“A lot of the Master Plan is restoring the natural processes of the river to create land,” she said during an extensive tour of wetlands restoration sites sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists in early September. “There is still enough sediment carried by that river to restore land in Louisiana. But there are people living here, so they have to get the sediment and the freshwater over to the natural marsh without flooding the people.”

Aside from subsidence and sea level rise, the leveeing of the Mississippi River eliminated the overbank flow of water and sediments to those wetlands – which is what created the wetlands in the first place – and has also contributed to the more than a million acres of Louisiana wetlands lost, said Quin Kinler, Resource Conservationist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Once we shut that flow off, we eliminated the potential of those lands to build and to maintain themselves,” he said.

A trip to Paradise

The first site we visit is the completed Pelican Island restoration project, where the wetlands, dune and swale habitats have undergone substantial loss due to subsidence, sea level rise, oil and gas activities and marine and wind-induced shoreline erosion. But the land we spend the next few hours exploring was restored using about 6.4 million cubic yards (MCY) of mixed sediment and sand from four different borrow areas in state and federal waters. The sand was used to create 192 acres of beach dune habitats, and another 398 acres of marsh platform with an average elevation of about 2.6 feet. An emergency berm was also built at the front of the island for flood protection.

Pelican Island is part of the barrier shoreline of the Barataria Basin, an area located south and west of New Orleans that is bound by the present and a former channel of the Mississippi River on two sides and separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a chain of barrier islands – long, sandy islands that absorb wave action and protect the mainland from storms. Since 1932, the basin has lost almost 17% of its land area, with recent annual wetland loss estimates ranging between 5,200 acres and 7,100 acres per year. At this rate, the Barataria Basin will lose up to 142,340 acres of land during the next 20 years – a loss greater than that in any other basin in Louisiana’s coastal zone.

The land in Barataria Basin is losing the battle against sea level rise and subsidence

The land in Barataria Basin is losing the battle against sea level rise and subsidence. The pink area represents the coastal restoration project area.

The Central Barataria Basin Land Bridge project aims to fortify and rebuild the marshes in that area to maintain the gradient of habitats from bald cypress and tupelo swamps to fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes. Kinler describes the problem the project is attempting to tackle in great detail: “We’ve had significant deterioration of the Barrier Islands. We’ve had significant deterioration of the saline marshes that rim the northern shore of the Caminada and Barataria Bays. We’re having a much greater marine influence further up into the basin than what is historically present, so those marshes that are of lower salinities in their origins … are now being exposed to much-higher salinity conditions.”

The Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation project aims to restore 447 acres of these marsh grasses over 20 years

The Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation project

Our afternoon site visit takes us to the Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation project, where we board and ride airboats in the stinging rain for a first-hand look at the 24-hour-a-day effort to use dredged material to restore marsh. Under the marsh creation restoration technique, dredged material is placed in a deteriorated wetland at specific elevations so that desired marsh plants will colonize and grow to form new marsh. For projects that are long distances from available sediment sources, the technique involves the use of booster pumps to transport sediment. In this project, the Mississippi River is being used as a sediment source to rebuild acreages in the basin. Significant marsh loss has occurred south and east of Lake Hermitage and along the eastern lake shoreline. The project aims to restore a net of 447 acres after 20 years, at an estimated cost of $38.3 million.

These projects are a testament to the fact that the main challenge to restoration is not a question of what to do – the areas of rapid wetland loss are well-documented and the techniques for restoring them exist – but rather finding the financing.

Where’s the money?

Brad Inman is a bit of a glutton for punishment, having worked for a consulting firm employed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the federal agency criticized for a delayed and insufficient response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 – and now for the Army Corp of Engineers, the often-embattled agency tasked with designing and building a levee system to protect Gulf communities against another Katrina-like disaster. But Inman had a front-row seat to the devastation wreaked by that storm and the subsequent failure of the levees, allowing 20-foot storm surges to invade the area and decimate the surrounding infrastructure. “Everything pretty much had to be rebuilt completely,” he said.

Sand is imported from 'borrow sites' to restores these dunes

Sand is imported to restore dunes

The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) has been at the center of the efforts to restore the coast of Louisiana. Under CWPPRA, which was originally authorized by the US Congress in 1990, 101 projects have been completed and another 150 projects are currently active. Each year, CWPPRA receives an 18.5% share – amounting to roughly $70-80 million – from the US Interior Department’s Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Safety Trust Fund. The cost of the program is shared by the federal and state government: a split of 85% federal and 15% state financing, with total funding to date of $1.5 billion and expenditures at about $922 million. But CWPPRA needs to be reauthorized beyond 2019, and a failure to do so would jeopardize any future restoration efforts, a major concern for those most directly involved with these projects.

The limited amount of financing available to CWPPRA forces some tough choices, said Inman, Chairman and Senior Project Manager for CWPPRA’s Planning and Evaluation Subcommittee. Every year, the agency develops a list of priority projects in what is a fairly democratic process in the beginning as local parish officials and other stakeholders can nominate projects, with roughly 80-100 projects nominated during the first round. That list gets winnowed down to a short list of about 10 projects, with the CWPPRA team selecting three or four projects to pursue every year because that is all that is affordable.

“Even though a couple of billion dollars over the lifetime seems like a lot of money, we found out that it is woefully inadequate to actually do a lot of good here in the coast with the types of losses that we are looking at,” he said.

Carbon markets to the rescue?

Given the inadequacy of government funding, could the carbon markets be tapped to support the restoration of these wetlands and stave off disaster? For certain projects, the answer could be yes. In September 2012, the American Carbon Registry approved a wetlands methodology that will allow landowners to quantify the carbon sequestered by restoration projects and then sell verified emissions reductions (i.e. carbon offsets) to voluntary offset buyers.

The methodology was co-authored by Sarah Mack, who is the chief executive officer of Tierra Resources, an organization piloting the first carbon offset project using the wetlands methodology at the Luling Oxidation Wetlands Assimilation Pond, a 950-acre wetland 20 miles west of New Orleans threatened by subsidence and saltwater intrusion. Entergy, the major utility on the Gulf which faces serious threats to its infrastructure from seas level rise and storms, spent $150,000 to help develop the wetlands carbon methodology and plans to buy some of the offsets from the Luling project once they are developed.

However, the contribution of the voluntary carbon markets could be limited because of its relatively small size. Ecosystem Marketplace tracked about nine million tonnes of all types of carbon offsets transacted in North America last year, with a total value of about $40 million, in its State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2014 report. But a version of the Mississippi Delta wetlands protocol is being adapted for California’s coasts, with the hope that the methodology developed in the voluntary carbon markets will be embraced by California regulators for the state’s regulated cap-and-trade program, which will be facing a supply shortage for offsets starting in 2015. While California legislators have expressed a preference for in-state offset projects, the program currently allows five different types of carbon projects throughout most of the United States and state regulators have consistently cited a need to expand the geographic scope of available projects given that 85% of California’s economy is capped and therefore ineligible to produce offsets for the program.

The best in the business

Despite the obvious funding challenges, one thing Southeastern Louisiana has going for it is that they there are some very smart, dedicated people on the front lines fighting against these literally rising tides. People such as Burkett, a native of nearby Biloxi, Mississippi who happens to also be a Nobel Laureate. Burkett is extremely proud of the fact that the project planning that Louisiana has done is consistent with the sea level rise scenarios featured in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report, which is noteworthy because many other states have not used the science in managing their coasts, said Burkett, a co-author of the IPCC reports. And as those fighting the good fight to save Louisiana’s coasts know all too well, the erosion will continue unabated without sustained intervention.

“We’re in the middle of this crisis,” Kinler said. “We’re certainly not at the end of it.”

Heading into the marsh

Heading into the marsh