Restoring the Mississippi River Delta

Louisiana is facing a land loss crisis, but there are solutions to restore the region

Louisiana’s coast is home to nearly two million people, provides vital habitat for wildlife and birds, and contributes tens of billions of dollars to the national economy every year. The Mississippi River Delta is an economic engine for the state as well as the nation that depends on it for shipping, chemicals, energy, and seafood.

Land loss crisis

But coastal Louisiana is facing a land loss crisis. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land, or an area the size of the state of Delaware. Every hour, a football field of land disappears into open water.

Leveeing of the Mississippi River in the early 20th century severed the tie between the river and its surrounding wetlands, cutting off the Mississippi River Delta from its life-giving river and the sediment it carries. These wetlands not only provide habitat for wildlife, birds and fisheries, they also help protect coastal cities by buffering storm surge. Without bold, large-scale restoration, Louisiana’s coast will continue to disappear, putting people, wildlife and industries at risk.

Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill

In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana’s coast and the city of New Orleans, causing more than 2,000 deaths and an estimated $91 billion in economic damages. Five years later, the 2010 BP oil disaster served another blow to an already degraded system. Louisiana’s coast was ground zero for the spill, bearing the brunt of onshore oiling and subsequent environmental and economic damages.

The Gulf Coast is still recovering from the effects of the oil disaster, and the ongoing impacts to Gulf wildlife and ecosystems may not be fully known for decades to come. Urgent, large-scale restoration is needed to both repair the damage caused by the spill and to restore Louisiana’s vanishing coast - to help buffer and protect the region from future storms and disasters.

But out of the oil spill came a silver lining. In 2012, Congress passed the RESTORE Act, legislation ensuring that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties BP and other parties pay as a result of the spill are dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration. 

BP agreed to pay more than $20 billion to settle remaining federal and state civil suits against the company for its role in the oil disaster - the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history. Under the agreement, Louisiana is poised to receive nearly $8 billion – or about half a billion dollars per year for the next 15 years – for coastal restoration. 

Innovative solutions

There are solutions and plans in place to repair damage caused by the spill, reverse Louisiana’s land loss crisis, rebuild protective wetlands and revitalize the Mississippi River Delta.

The 2012 Coastal Master Plan is the blueprint for Louisiana’s coastal restoration and protection efforts. Based on sound science, the plan contains coastal restoration and natural infrastructure projects – such as marsh creation, barrier island restoration and oyster reefs – as well as coastal protection projects, such as levees and floodwalls. Together, these projects will rebuild land along Louisiana’s coast as well as provide protection for cities and infrastructure.

Other efforts to restore and revitalize Louisiana’s coast include Changing Course, a design competition to maximize the utilization of the river to build land in the delta. Changing Course brought together engineers and planners from around the world to create innovative visions for the Mississippi River Delta – visions that take into account the needs of industries, communities and infrastructure while using the natural power of the river to build land. Ultimately, by adding these visions to the Coastal Master Plan, we can create a sustainable lower Mississippi River Delta for generations to come.

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  • Elizabeth Van Cleve
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