Reporter's Notebook: Covering climate change impacts in Louisiana
Updated 07:59, 27-Apr-2021
Sean Callebs

Louisiana, and of course New Orleans, will be ground zero over the next few years in the battle against climate change.

Like many coastal areas around the world with expansive marshlands, the state is facing the dual punishment of sinking land, and rising tides.

However, Louisiana is fighting back, and has proposed a science-based battle that would cost a whopping 50-billion dollars over the next half century.

While it won’t eliminate that amount of important coastal wetlands from washing away –it could very well stem the tide and dramatically reduce the amount of marshland being wiped out.

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The measure is being overseen by the state, Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Board.

I spent the last two weeks driving around Louisiana, and heading out on boats with shrimpers, oystermen, crabbers, and fishermen.

When you say, “it is time for coastal restoration…”, it is hard to find anyone against that. Think about it the array of wetlands firstly provides a buffer against a punishing storm surge that comes with a hurricane or powerful tropical storm. The state suffered through six named storms last year. 

Secondly, Louisiana is losing about 100 yards of marshy coastline every 100 minutes. Do nothing, and the state will lose this rich eco-diverse region.

The cornerstone of this plan involves slicing an opening in the levees that protect New Orleans and much of Louisiana from flooding. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 proved that the levee system is not enough to keep the water from devastating New Orleans. Scientists say the marshes need immediate attention

So, the plan – officially called river divergence – will steer about 12-percent of the flow of the Mississippi into the wetlands. It would deliver fresh water to a salty, brackish region and plan is the silt from the Mississippi would also attach to the marshes, and slowly start to rebuild the region.

Almost all people who make their living on the water south of New Orleans are strong opposed to the plan. In simple terms, the recently completed environmental impact statement shows it would dramatically alter the population of fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp in the region.

People, who for generations have made a living fishing the region and supplying New Orleans with the wonderful seafood that feeds legions of tourists, would be scrambling to find new waters to work. The fresh water would destroy the nursery, the habitat and breeding grounds for everything they pull from the water.

I talked with environmentalists who overwhelmingly support the move.  They say it is a trade off. There is some $300 million in  mitigation money to help the coastline fishermen, but they dearly want to keep their way of life.

They propose dredging sand from the Mississippi, and pumping it on to marshy areas.

The scientists say, too costly and it won’t last.

But this massive river divergence has never been tried on this scale.

The only reason Louisiana can try this, is because of billions of dollars BP had to pay in the aftermath of the Horizon disaster, 11 lives were lost and two-thousand kilometers of coastline was fouled by oil.

Let’s turn the clock back to 1930.

In an effort to stop the Mississippi River from flooding, and causing catastrophic damage every year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the levee system that hems in the river from southern Illinois, to mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico.

It stopped the flooding.

It's also cut off the river from dumping silt throughout the coast, silt and sand that created the marsh system over thousands of years.

Scientists and environmental groups that back the plan, and there are a lot of them say, it’s a trade off.

Sure the fishermen will have a tougher time, but the coast needs protection.

The fishermen who know the backwaters of the marsh like the back of their hand feel pretty helpless, and are tired of hearing the term “trade-off”.

And one phrase keeps getting tossed around, and it is really tough to ignore: do nothing, and lose the coast.

Groundbreaking on the river divergence plan could happen sometime next year. 

With so much at stake, and such powerful support it is tough to imagine the program not starting, and starting on time.

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