by Helen Rose Patterson, Restore the Mississippi River Delta, as originally published in the June 2019 issue of Churchwork
Restore the Mississippi River Delta is a coalition of the National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Together we work to use the best available science to drive restoration priorities, engage a variety of stakeholders in education and advocacy efforts, develop communications tools that tell our stories effectively and advance forward-thinking policy solutions that will get Louisiana to a sustainable coast as efficiently as possible. For the last several years, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana has played an important role in advocating for coastal restoration alongside us.
Louisiana’s coast is vanishing at an alarming rate – every 100 minutes a football field of land disappears. Since the 1930s we’ve lost a land mass the size of Delaware, and that loss has impacts across our communities and ecosystems. Those coastal wetlands are extremely important for a variety of reasons – from providing communities with critical storm protection to generating billions of dollars of economic opportunities that benefit the entire nation. For more than 2 million people who live and work along Louisiana’s coast, wetlands help buffer storm surge, allowing communities to grow and thrive despite the threats of hurricanes. Louisiana is also home to five of the nation’s largest ports, the producer of 90 percent of the country’s outer continental oil and gas, and the provider of nearly 30 percent of the commercial fishing landings of the continental U.S. Along with supporting a vibrant human community, Louisiana’s coast is a remarkably productive ecosystem and home to threatened and endangered species such as the Louisiana black bear, the piping plover, and the green sea turtle.
Our land loss crisis is caused by many different natural and man-made factors, but the leading cause of wetlands loss is that they have been starved of sediment from the Mississippi River by the levees built for flood control and navigation. Over thousands of years, Louisiana’s coast was built and maintained by the periodic deposition of river sediment during floods. Leveeing the river cut the tie between the sediment-laden river and its delta, which stopped the cycle of wetland growth. Additionally, shipping channels and canals have allowed salt water to penetrate our wetlands destroying the parts of the ecosystem reliant on fresh water. Oil and gas infrastructure, including canals, extraction, and spills have taken their toll on our coast. Dams upriver trap sediment where it is of no use to the Louisiana coast. There are also natural phenomena at play such as subsidence or the sinking of coastal land paired with sea-level rise swallowing our shores. Hurricanes also wreak havoc on our coastal wetlands as they absorb storms sure and wind.
Since there are many different causes of land loss, we need to implement many different solutions if we want to have a sustainable coast. In order to achieve the large scale restoration we so desperately need, the state has developed a planning process that results in a regularly updated plan, based on the best available science. The Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast is a 50-year, $50 billion plan that prioritizes the most urgent projects and aims to reduce flood risk through both restoration and risk reduction strategies. Some restoration projects aim to recreate our natural systems; these include sediment diversions and freshwater diversions that reconnect the river to the delta through a controlled structure. Sediment diversions are designed to capture more sediment and freshwater diversions at designed to capture more water.
Other restoration solutions aim to rebuild the natural features of our coast. Marsh creation projects use dredged sediment to build land quickly. Ridge restoration projects are meant to recreate the naturally elevated sections of our very flat coast and are important to block saltwater intrusion and trap sediment. Barrier islands are the first speed bump that a hurricane hits as it comes ashore and over the last decade Louisiana has rebuilt many of the barrier islands that skirt our coast.
For the last three years, part of our outreach effort has been engaging with congregations from all faith communities to understand and advance restoration. The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana has frequently participated in our efforts. Clergy and lay leaders have attended workshops to build their skills as advocates for restoration. We’ve taken Sunday afternoon field trips to see the coast at the Barataria Preserve, and clergy have joined us for tours of the coast on airboats and airplanes. Several clergy have met with their legislators and visited the Capitol to demonstrate strong support for coastal restoration efforts.
Congregations can play an important role in advancing large scale coastal restoration; there are essentially two important ways to get involved. The first is the “boots-on-the–ground” approach. Getting outside to plant trees with Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation or to bag oyster shells for reef building with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana are direct investments in the future of our coast and deepen an individual’s commitment to the issues and understanding of the coastal ecosystem. Congregations in this diocese have planted 850 trees along Louisiana’s coast in the last two planting seasons. It has been an opportunity for the children and youth of these congregations to learn more about the ecosystem they call home and how they can work to ensure that it’s got a bright future.
The second way that you can support our coast is by engaging with the decision-makers responsible for advancing large-scale restoration like sediment diversions, marsh creation, and barrier island restoration. We can plant trees every weekend and build oyster reefs all over the coast, but without the large-scale restoration proposed in the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, we cannot address the underlying causes of our land loss and create a coast that can stand the test of time. This is why participation in advocacy workshops, visits with legislators, and trips to the Capitol are such an important way for people to support coastal restoration efforts.
The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana has been a robust participant in advocating for the coastal restoration that we so desperately need here in Louisiana. Clergy and lay leaders have brought an important moral and spiritual aspect to tough conversations about the changes that are coming with or without restoration activities. It is my sincere hope that the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana will continue to engage in the important and challenging work of advocating for a sustainable future for all of our coastal communities and ecosystems.