Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The collapse of the coast

For 5,000 years, there were hurricanes. For 5,000 years, there were floods, there was sea level rise and there was subsidence. So, you know, there are
forces of nature that wetlands have been able to survive. The one different ingredient in our landscape in the last 300 years is humans.
Robert Twilley, Louisiana State University on PBS' NewHour.

Forty square miles a year. That is the annual rate of coastal lost sustained in the last half century. By the year 2050, Louisiana will have lost an area the size of Rhode Island to the Gulf of Mexico. The graphic here gives an impression of the tremendous rate of loss.

This is in small part a natural process of subsidence. River deltas are built by periodic river floods that deposit silt, and the same land subsides when the river abandons a particular delta and changes course, when the flooding that replenishes the land comes to an end. But the river has not abandoned its current delta, the seventh it has built in this region. Man will not let it.

Instead, the channelization of the river, topsoil erosion control and the construction of river flood protection levees have deprived the southeast Louisiana coast of its natural replenishment. These losses have been immensely aggravated by the development of oil-and-gas long the coast, involving the dredging of tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and access canals and the construction of unnatural spoil banks. This has allowed the intrusion of salt-water into brackish water marsh, and brackish water into fresh water marsh. Killing the vegetation that holds this tenouos land together has sped up the process immenslvely. Without vegetation, the tenuous land is easily washed away.

Like the levee failure in New Orleans, the collapse of the coastal environment in Louisiana is largely man-made catastrophe, the outcome of a series of choices made for the benefit of the entire nation at our expense. Yes subsidence plays a part, but only a small one in the vast lossees of the last half century. What has occured has been the theft of land from Louisiana, without compensation, in order to provide additional agricultural land elsewhere, and to produce oil-and-gas.

Imagine this if you will: Los Angeles is the city most closely associated with America's lust affair with the personal automobile, and production of the oil necessary to make that lifestyle possible is in large part responsible for coastal erosion.

If we applied Louisiana's coastal erosion rate to the L.A. coastline (which Google tells me stretches 76 miles from Malibu to Long Beach), the city would have to move back from the sea a little under one mile a year. Would the Hummer continue to be so popular in SoCal if it were their land they were giving up at such an alarming rate in the name of cheap gas?

People tend to think of the coast of Louisiana as an abysmal swamp, perhaps imagining the place where the National Guardsmen got lost in the awful film Southern Comfort. In fact, it is one of the most productive places on earth, nurturing an immense bounty of seafood (and less importantly, as fashion trends change fur). It is an essential stopping point on the Mississippi flayway. Without these marshes, the future of a lot of popularly hunted birdlife would also be threatned.

According to the coastal advocacy group America's Wetland, Louisiana produces one-third of the nation's seafood by dollar value, and is ranked second behind Alaska in by weight of seafood landed. In 1981, the value of those commerical fisheries was about $680 million. Sport fishing and constitute over $10 billion a year in economic activity. All of this is being taken away from us, without compenstaion.

From the vantage point of New Orleans, the biggest impact is the loss of protection from storm surge, the water pushed up by low barometic pressue and storm winds into a tremendous tide. These maps (courtesy of Third Battle of New Orleans) show the impact on one small area in suburban New Orleans, in Chalmette, La. Here in St. Bernard Parish, the levees were overwhelmed by the storm surge and wave action made possible by the loss of these wetlands, which can reduce storm surge by as much as one foot for every mile between open water and the levee.

These rapidly disappearing coastal environments protect not only the city of New Orleans, but the massive oil-and-gas infrastructure along the coast. Outages along the coast from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita help keep the price of gasoline at between $2 and $3 a gallon since September of last year. Production is still 15% below normal nine month later.

Neither of these storm were The Big One. If we don't act to protect the coast, when the Big One comes the United States could lose 25% of its domestic imported oil-and-gas (if you include the imports from the off-shore Superport). Will we be able to help anyone to rebuild when gas goes to $5 a gallon or beyond, and stays there?

To survive, we must have coastal restoration, or everything that makes Louisiana a place unique in the world will be gone in our lifetime: New Orleans and Acadiana, the seafood and the oil, and all of the species of fish and fowl that depend on the coast. If the levees along the lower river start to go (as they did in stretches of Plaquemines Parish in Katrina), the river could cut itself a new, non-navigable channel. If that happens, the economy of all of the entire American heartland will be in peril, if agricultural exports have to be freighted to other ports by truck and rail.

We have known the solutions for years, as everyone at this recent gathering of experts says.The most recent statement was the Coast 2050 plan. A gathering of All we need are the funds to implement it. There is a model. Inland oil-and-gas production on federal lands rebates 50% of the lease revenue back to the state the federal lands are in. This money is why Alaskans get a check each year from their state instead of paying taxes. All we're asking for is the same 50% share of off-shore oil-and-gas lease revenue, because of the tremendous impact this has on our coastline.

And if we can't have that, then we want all of our damn money back, money we paid to the IRS and at the pump, from those shiftless, no-count Alaskans, who should have to pay state and local taxes like the rest of us instead of leaching off of the rest of America.

It's sad how few people know about this process; even I would have not known about the natural replenishing of sediments via flooding if it weren't for the Environmental Science course I took at UNO two years ago.

I wish that the mainstream media would pick up and emphasize the importance of the wetlands in this equation. Sure, the local media has covered it, but I don't think I've ever turned on CNN to discover someone talking about the importance of the environment to Louisiana in this level of detail.
It's been a busy week at the KnockingShitDownCompany. I came here to check out your fire fighter post, having heard about it from a little bird (or 2 or 3). I find this. Isn't this the heart of the matter, the salient point? I love this post, Markus. I'm sorry it took me so many days to find it.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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