New Orleans. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Bob Marshall stands atop the earthen levee at Myrtle Grove in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, about thirty miles south of New Orleans. We are in a community outside the system of levees that defend the city and surrounding parishes from the sort of storm surges and flooding that devastated the region when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The Army Corps of Engineers completed the $14 billion project to rebuild that system last summer. But despite the massive upgrade, the areas on both sides of the levees remain dangerously vulnerable.
Marshall is a tall, handsome man with a thick head of graying hair and a winning smile. The former outdoors editor of The Times-Picayune and a Pulitzer Prize winner, he is now a staff writer covering coastal issues for the Lens, an online investigative journal in New Orleans. We are about to spend the day observing the rapidly crumbling Mississippi Delta. But even before we set out, we get a lesson in the complexity of the issue and the conflicts and contradictions that make attacking it so difficult.
On one side of the Myrtle Grove levee is a network of canals leading to the Gulf of Mexico, most of which support oil and gas development, which began in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands in the 1930s. For decades, the oil and gas companies blatantly disregarded the environment as they dug canals for access to the wells; federal permits were not even required until 1972. To this day, new devastation is continuously revealed, most vividly following the 2010 BP oil spill, considered the largest in history, which discharged an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the already fragile delta.
On the other side of the levee are rapidly sinking wetlands. It took 6,000 years for the overflowing sediment of the nearby Mississippi River to build these delta marshes. But, Marshall says, it has taken only seventy years for the levees and shipping canals to put the marshes in jeopardy. Without the river’s continuous nourishment of new sediment and fresh water, saltwater from the Gulf penetrates the estuaries, killing the plants that hold the soil and opening the way for rapid shoreline erosion. Since the 1930s those forces have turned nearly 2,000 square miles of cypress swamps and marshes into open water.
In 2007, Congress approved the Myrtle Grove Diversion, a land-building project that would pipe in sediment to help replenish the wetlands, halt erosion and provide increased storm protection. Congress has not yet funded the project, and with each storm, more wetlands disappear. But even with adequate funding, significant obstacles would remain. Engineering the diversion would require approval from property owners to build across privately owned parcels of land. And the diversion would have an impact on all residents in the area because the salinity of the water would change from brackish to fresh, which would affect fishing. But residents disagree about what’s best for the region.
Everyone agrees that erosion needs to stop. “They want the land rebuilt. About half said they don’t care what it takes to save the marsh, it should be done,” Marshall says of one nearby community. “The other half want only the slurry pipeline that would bring sediment to rebuild or fortify the wetlands, but they don’t want the brackish water to change because it may interfere with the fishing, oyster and shrimp business that they come here for.”
Planners have been facing this sort of pushback for twenty years, Marshall says. And in a state where an estimated 80 percent of coastal wetlands are privately owned, the government also stands in the way of much-needed improvements. “On principle, this state hates to interfere with private property,” he says. “Eminent domain is time-consuming, complicated and can get stalled in courts anyway.” But what’s available is “quick-take authority,” a more streamlined way of expropriating property for a public purpose. The state doesn’t want to use this authority to advance any of these rebuilding projects, either. But it does allow the utilities and oil and gas companies to use it when it serves their private interests.