La.’s fight to keep our coastline

Louisiana’s coastline is sinking even as ocean levels are rising, a dire combination that makes our state more vulnerable to climate change than any other place in the nation.

Scientists say that in the next century, subsidence and expanding seas will create a 2- to 6-foot rise in the Gulf of Mexico relative to the height of the land for many areas around New Orleans. A rise of 3.3 feet _ a mid-level projection rather than a worst-case scenario _ would turn New Orleans into an island and the Baton Rouge suburbs into coastal towns.

Louisiana has a 10-year window to make a meaningful stand against coastal erosion. The Army Corps of Engineers is racing to put protection in place by 2011 from a Rita-like storm. But all efforts to save our imperiled coast, from wetlands creation and restoration to building levees and surge barriers, must be measured against the frightening backdrop of subsidence and rising sea level.

For South Louisiana, the stakes are nothing short of survival – and that realization must inform everything that state and local officials do. Gov. Jindal, our congressional delegation, other elected officials and business and community leaders must make saving our coast this state’s highest and most urgent priority.

President-elect Barack Obama wants a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and that commitment should make him keenly interested in Louisiana’s fate. This state’s predicament is a graphic argument for addressing the manmade causes of global warming.

Coastal restoration is even more important in the face of expanding oceans. Scientists say that healthy wetlands probably could handle an increase of 18 inches over the next 100 years. Granted, that does nothing to counter subsidence. Louisiana has one of the fastest rates of subsidence in the world. But renewed wetlands would help protect the state from storms and provide a cushion against rising sea level.

The state needs far more than one-time projects. Experts say that newly created land will need constant nourishment from sediment and freshwater, made possible by diversions. The cost of building and maintaining those diversions will be considerable. Levees also will need to meet the challenges of a changing landscape, and that will boost their cost.

The state will start getting a significant share of money from new oil leases in the Gulf in 2016 and could see as much as $1 billion by 2028. But we can’t afford to wait that long. The state’s congressional delegation is pushing to speed up the time frame, and that is crucial.

Louisiana needs more than money – it needs the political will to keep this issue paramount. Louisianians must be prepared for difficult trade-offs and sacrifices, whether that means abandoning some areas to allow for restoration projects or accepting the effects that diversion projects may have on navigation and other economic interests.

We can’t afford to squabble with each other when the land beneath our feet is slipping away.

– The Times-Picayune, New Orleans