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Blog Action Day: America Needs to Commit to Saving the Louisiana Coast

“Louisiana loses 24 square miles of coastal wetlands each year, the equivalent of a football field every 30 minutes, due to loss of sediment buildup that used to occur naturally.” (Redirecting Mississippi River Proposed As Way To Save Louisiana Coast)

Mississippi River Delta

Mississippi River Delta

Water, the worldwide topic for this fourth annual Blog Action Day gives me license to talk about something important that America seems to not want to deal with- restoring the Louisiana coast by freeing/redirecting the flow of the Mississippi river back into, and through, the state’s coastal marshes and wetlands.

Over the decades, we’ve hemmed in the Mississippi River through a system of levies and flood control projects.  The river flows smoothly and flooding along the river’s plains and deltas have become an anomolous events.  The Mississippi is more steady, navigable, safer and less threatening from a flood control standpoint.

This safer, more usable, Mississippi has come at a cost.  The natural flushing of soils and depositing of sediments all along the Mississippi have disappeared.  The soil still exists but its fertility declines without regular refreshment from the river.   A line that you hear down here in Mississippi is that “the Delta is the most chemically dependent place on earth.”  All the Mississippi Delta soil is still here, but it now requires chemical intervention to keep it fertile.

Fertility is an easy issue compared to what the taming of the Mississippi has done to Louisiana.  The River is now so hemmed-in that the water and all its contents drain straight out into the Gulf of Mexico rather than flow the Louisiana marshes and wetlands.  This redirecting of the Mississippi has been a disaster for south Louisiana.

“…Until the 1930s, silt and sediments carried down the Mississippi River and deposited in the delta added nearly one square mile (2.6 sq km) a year to Louisiana’s land mass, most of it marsh.

But during the past 80 years, with the advent of levees to control the flow of the Mississippi, as well as dredging and the channelization of the river for navigation, the state has lost about 2,300 square miles (6,000 sq km) of its coastal lands as silt washes straight out to sea.

“The result of that is a very, very fragmented shoreline, a very deteriorated barrier coastal area,” Graves said (Garret Graves, chair of Louisisana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority).

As an illustration, Graves noted that the rim of Louisiana’s coastline is nearly 400 miles long, but the actual tidal shoreline — accounting for the patchwork of islands, bays, inlets and channels — amounts to over 7,700 miles.

As the state’s outlying islands shrink and disappear, the Gulf’s sea water has pushed farther north into estuaries, killing vegetation accustomed to brackish, less salty water.

The rapid growth of onshore oil and gas facilities and other development also has taken a toll.

But the whole process was intensified by a flurry of hurricanes in the last several years — including Katrina and Rita in 2005, and Gustav and Ike in 2008.

The storms punched new holes through barrier islands and coastal beach, exposing even more marshland to saltwater intrusion and leaving wetlands especially vulnerable…” (Reuters)

Redirect the Mississippi Through the Louisiana Marshes

No other state has taken this kind of hit. Louisiana’s safety and productivity hang in the balance. The state needs the wetlands for hurricane safety and to maintain the productivity of its waters. Louisiana is America’s seafood breadbasket.

It can be done. On a smaller scale the Atchafalaya River, a distributary of the Mississippi River has been freed to successfully flush, replenish and rebuild the wetlands it serves.

The cost wouldn’t be cheap, but the necessity is, in many ways, a national security issue, considering commerce, safety, liabilities and costs. The price, $20 billion- a bargain when you consider losing a people, the nation’s seafood breadbasket, and the continuing hurricane and insurance risks.

The cost of Boston’s Big Dig (Central Artery/Tunnel Project) totaled $22 billion- a great public works project but not meaningful to the nation.

Louisiana’s vanishing coast is national issue. It’s time to redirect the Mississippi River and let fresh water from the River restore the Louisiana coast. President Obama has talked about it. It’s time for action.

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Photo credit: USGS

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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