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Erosion, a serious threat eating away at Louisiana

The coast of Louisiana is immense: more than 370k miles. For a century, this coast has eroded more and more rapidly. Villages disappear. Swamps and islands are caught in the seawater. A phenomenon that has enormous consequences.

Talk to Albertine Kimble, who has spent her entire life in the parish of Plaquemines just south of New Orleans.

“During the last storm, there were three feet of water in my yard,” she says. She had to take her boat to get to her car.

“More and more people are moving,” says Kimble.”Or, they try to adapt their home to the new reality,” she adds.

The damage caused by the oil industry

All the world’s coasts are eroding and the rising waters caused by global warming are accelerating this process.

In Louisiana, however, erosion is particularly rapid. Especially because the oil industry has profoundly changed the landscape.

To move oil from the Gulf of Mexico to inland refineries, canals have been dug all along the coast, replacing the more modest bayous.

“It let in the seawater, which killed all the trees, all the vegetation that was used to hold the earth, which prevented hurricanes from entering,” says Marie-Françoise Crouch, a retired teacher who works with native people particularly affected by the erosion of the Louisiana coast.

What’s better than a plane ride to get some perspective? It is here that one can grasp the complexity of the Mississippi delta, where fresh water joins salt water, where thousands of animal species find themselves. This is where we understand that if we alter nature, the impacts are considerable.

This is the Audubon Society, an environmental organization that aims to protect birds, which offered me to fly over the coast with an expert biologist.

If we do not do anything, the current projection is that we could lose another 10,000 square kilometers in the next 50 years, with rising sea levels and more violent tropical storms.

Erik Johnson, biologist at the Audubon Society

We must not lose sight, adds Erik Johnson, that New Orleans could not survive, because the wetlands that protect it at this time will disappear. New Orleans is surrounded by water: the Mississippi, Lake Pontchartrain, the Gulf of Mexico, which may become a single body of water.

It seems to fly over a huge cheese gruyère, with holes everywhere. “It was dry land, 50 years ago,” says Erik Johnson.

Global warming and the oil industry are not the only ones responsible for erosion. There are also water retention walls in case of hurricanes, which broke the natural connection between fresh and salt water.

Save the coast

It took time, but today, we are making real efforts to turn the tide. “Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call,” says Johnson.

Today, the Louisiana government has a strategy of restoring the coast. There is also a broad coalition of environmental groups and academic researchers, to which the Audubon Society belongs.

Here we are on a boat, always in the parish of Plaquemines, with members of this coalition. Here the salt water had won the battle and the swamps had disappeared. But today, life is back.

“It was necessary to restore the natural connection between the Mississippi and the delta,” says Theryn Hankel, founder of Lake Pontchartrain.

Without fresh water with its alluvium and nutrients, the marshes will die. These substances create soil and vegetation. And fresh water favors the ecosystem of the delta. But by building retaining walls to counter hurricanes, we cut off the natural flow of fresh water.

Theryn Hankel, Ecologist of the Poncthartrain Lake Foundation
How was it done to restore the ecosystem? By drifting a portion of the water from the Mississippi to the delta, using a lock.

Everything was rebuilt automatically, gradually. The “diversions” of fresh water are one of the means to protect the coast. There is also the reconstruction of some islands that mitigate erosion.

The stakes far exceed the disappearance of some villages on the Gulf. The Mississippi Delta is one of the richest ecosystems on the continent. And 30% of the commercial fishing industry in the United States comes from Louisiana.

Shrimps, oysters and peaches are important economic drivers. Swamps and wetlands are nursery species for young shrimp and fish. They thrive in the marshes before venturing into the gulf. Without wetlands, they will not survive.

Erik Johnson, biologist at the Audubon Society

Too slow efforts

All these efforts are commendable, but experts agree that they are not enough. It would take a lot more projects and especially a lot more investment, particularly from the federal government, to really fight erosion.

And the current administration in Washington does not seem very interested.

There is also an economic dilemma between Louisiana’s two most important industries: oil and fishing. How to make the first prosper without penalizing the second? And vice versa.

Everyone remembers the leak of the Deepwater Horizon platform in 2010. And its environmental consequences. Ironically, the responsible company, BP, is now largely funding the restoration of the coast, because the governments have imposed this on it as a remedy.

And the future? “I hope that New Orleans will still be there in 50 years, but I’m not sure,” said Howard Margot, himself a New-Orleanese and curator at the city’s historical museum.

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