AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a story I originally posted in March of 2007 that seems so important right now I've brought it back for your consideration.
Let’s begin today’s discussion with a quick thought experiment.
What is the single most important thing necessary to ensure the survival of the State of Louisiana?
Improved government administration?
More and better levees?
The success of the “Road Home” project?
I submit it is none of these.
The single most important factor determining the future of the State of Louisiana is mud.
That’s right, mud.
Were you aware that the entire State consists of mud? When you look at a geologic map, there is nothing to be seen but sedimentary deposits dating back to the Cambrian period.
And the mud, it is a-sinking.
Katrina took out more than 57 square miles of land in Plaquemines Parish alone. That former land is now the Gulf of Mexico.
The Army Corps of Engineers has maps of the Mississippi river from 1998. When you get to the page, click on map 141. What you see is a portion of Plaquemines Parish. (Here’s the same place on Google Maps.)
Notice almost the entire map area consists of water, canals, and marsh. There’s only two narrow strips of solid ground evident. Now let’s pull out a bit. There’s just about nothing in the image but sinking ground. Now pull out just a little bit further, and guess what-there’s New Orleans.
This was the area of Louisiana most affected by Katrina.
It’s now time for you to meet Professor Oliver A. Houck. His essay “Can We Save New Orleans?”, published in the Tulane Law Journal, will be central to the remainder of this conversation, and I would encourage you in the strongest terms to take the time to read the document.
Here are some of the issues he brings to light:
--There is no consensus on what is to be done-should the emphasis be on maximizing the amount of developable land; or should the emphasis be on maximizing opportunities for natural processes to replenish the bayous? These are two mutually exclusive goals, and Houck suggests development is winning.
--The Federal government is responsible for maintaining navigation on the Mississippi, but flood control is managed locally. As a result of this and the huge amounts of money that are spread around through levee and other water control project construction, politics has more influence on the management process than science and inter-jurisdictional coordination.
--Environmental pollution-especially fertilizer runoffs-kill the marsh grasses that hold the soil together. As a result, the process of saving Louisiana starts in South Dakota, and is therefore a national, not just a State problem.
--It is easier to calculate the cost-benefit of industrial and commercial activity than the cost-benefit of saving lives-and safety advocates have fewer lobbyists.
--Money spent now, on non-development rights, for example, will be cheaper than money spent later on reconstruction or remediation.
And the most important of all:
--It’s the constant movement of silt down the river that makes it possible for there to be a Louisiana-and America’s history of “taming” the Mississippi has nearly brought that process to a stop. The River carried 400 million tons a year of silt 150 years ago, Houck reports, and today carries only 80 million. Without that “new” land to deposit in the Delta, there is no way to offset the erosion to the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s not the only reason the State is sinking, however. Pumping drinking water from aquifers has an impact, and the expansion of the ocean caused by global warming does, too. Even the weight of the levees themselves on the soft soil is affecting the situation.
Professor Houck, being a “fix-it” kind of analyst, has offered a ten-point prescription for Louisiana recovery. Here’s the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version”:
1) Draw the map-in other words, there needs to be a set of decisions made regarding exactly where humans will be allowed to control the land, and where the river will have its say.
2) With a new map, reconsider the projects-Houck reminds us that Katrina changed everything, and that projects already designed or underway are probably the wrong solutions to today’s problems.
3) “Free the Mississippi 400 million”-open dams upriver to allow the 400 million tons of silt to do its thing downriver.
4) Free the rivers-the logical extension of point 3. Open the levees appropriately, and let the rivers do their thing.
5) Cut the upstream fertilizers-we discussed this above-fertilizer kills grass, and that kills land. This is where parties outside Louisiana have to step up to the plate-the EPA, the Corps of Engineers, the various States, and maybe even private actors such as the Nature Conservancy.
6) Heal the marsh-if grass holds the mud in place, then grass we must grow. Professor Houck uses a farming analogy-one in which Louisianans would essentially become “land farmers”.
7) Quit making it worse-dredging and filling for canals and subdivisions is the enemy. As we said above, prevention is cheaper than mitigation.
8) Make room for Nature-consolidate human development within protected areas to create room for natural restoration to work.
9) Dare to think retreat-Houck advocates completely removing residential development from threatened areas, through buyouts. He makes the argument that businesses can be sustained, however.
10) Global warming is real-Professor Houck suggests denial here just makes the problem much, much worse.
We have already seen the consequences of our desire to develop every inch of shoreline, and not just in Louisiana, but all along the Gulf Coast. And we already are beginning to understand that this is truly a national problem.
But if we hope to keep South Louisiana as a functioning economy or even as an above water piece of real estate, we better start talking about national solutions that help Nature’s solutions.