How to fix Louisiana's eroding coast? These designers have a plan.

Steve Cochran

Earlier this year, 31 geographic locations in southern Louisiana were removed from an official map after being swallowed by the sea. Since the 1930s, a land area the size of Delaware has been lost.

As the Gulf of Mexico continues to reclaim the Mississippi River Delta, residents and businesses are forced to contemplate a future retreat inland as the wetlands they depend on for income and storm protection continue to erode.

What will it take to turn this degradation, caused by decades of ill-conceived river management practices and exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill and rising oceans? How can we help the river restore wetlands that serve as a critical storm buffer for New Orleans and surrounding communities, while also sustaining local industry?

We asked some of the world’s top engineers, planners, designers, scientists and coastal experts to create innovative visions for the Mississippi River Delta, one of America’s greatest – and most threatened – natural resources.

Their answer: There is, in fact, a sustainable delta if we let the river do its job.

Changing Course design challenge

Twenty-one teams entered Changing Course, an international competition sponsored by Environmental Defense Fund and our partners, with three eventually selected as finalists.

These three teams were asked to develop plans that demonstrate how, over time, the Mississippi River’s water and sediment could be used to maximize rebuilding of the delta’s wetlands while also continuing to meet the needs of navigation, flood protection, and coastal industries and communities - a challenge raised by Louisiana’s coastal planning process.

The delta’s trouble began more than 80 years ago, when the river was leveed for navigation and flood control and its natural course halted. With the tie between the river and the wetlands severed, the Louisiana coast began to erode.

While each finalist team offered a different plan for addressing this problem, all three identified five major themes as critical to sustaining the region today and into the future:

  • Reconnecting the Mississippi River to its wetlands to help restore southeast Louisiana’s first line of defense against powerful storms and rising sea levels.
  • Planning for a smaller, more sustainable delta, including a gradual shift in population and industry to create more protected and resilient communities.
  • Protecting and maximizing the region’s port and maritime activities.
  • For the first time ever, fully integrating restoration, navigation and flood control into the management of the Mississippi River.
  • Increasing economic opportunities in a future smaller delta through expanding shipping capacity, coastal restoration infrastructure, outdoor recreation and tourism and commercial fishing.

We must balance the region’s different needs

Will Changing Course help the Mississippi River Delta region turn a corner? We think it might as it builds on a strong plan already in place.

Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan includes innovative approaches for reconnecting the river with its dying delta. But it also asks how we could maximize the use of the river for restoration, while balancing the needs of a world class navigation system and improving flood control for the whole region.

This is where Changing Course comes in. The teams developed innovative 100-year plans for Louisiana’s coast. The initiatives serves as an anchor for a project listed as a “funded priority” by the federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, a $9.3 million study of the management of the lower river.

But we believe our finalists – Baird & Associates, Moffatt & Nichol and Studio Misi-Ziibi – may also have come up with solutions that are applicable to vulnerable coastal areas in other parts of the in the world.

We know river restoration lessons can travel far.

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