In Louisiana, rising sea levels are already flooding land - meaning all coastal areas may be in peril
By Scott Allen, The Boston Globe, Nov. 7, 1999ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. - The retired priest tells his story with a faded photo of his smiling mother in her flower garden. Those were the good old days of the 1950s, the Rev. Roch Naquin explains, when cows grazed in a big field behind the family home and a new road brought the first cars to this remote bayou village.
But then, the Gulf of Mexico began swallowing up the land, turning the family's pasture into a marsh and salting what was left of his mother's garden. The prized road, once flanked by broad green fields, became a causeway through open ocean, waves washing over the bleak asphalt when the wind blows.
''If you do nothing, in 10 years, this place will be water,'' said Naquin, who, like many of the Chitimacha Indians living on the low ridge, has put his modest house up on cinderblocks to escape the advancing water.
Coastal Louisiana is literally sinking into the sea, drowning places such as Isle de Jean Charles and giving the rest of North America an alarming glimpse of what may lie in store in the 21st century if sea levels rise as much as some scientists expect.
Since 1930, an area 50 percent bigger than Rhode Island has returned to the sea in Louisiana, and Louisiana State University researchers say another Rhode Island-sized patch could go in the next 50 years. Louisiana accounts for 80 percent of the coastal wetlands destroyed in the United States annually, a dramatic threat to one of the most productive fisheries in the world.
Louisiana's problems are unique, at least for now. The region south of New Orleans is so low-lying that locals refer to land just 3 feet above sea level as ''a ridge.'' And the land is so new, formed by sediment deposits from the Mississippi River over the past 5,000 years, that it is still sinking.
State officials inadvertently triggered the rapid land loss in the 1930s when they built up the levee system to prevent a repeat of a 1927 flood that killed hundreds. Unfortunately, the levees also blocked the Mississippi from delivering fresh mud that could have built up the delta region.
Despite obvious differences in geography, New England could face similar problems if global warming and other forces cause sea level to rise 7 to 39 inches by 2100 as a United Nations scientific panel predicts. Nearly 10 percent of the land in low-lying towns such as Hull and Nantucket would be submerged, while storm surges would flood many places that now stay bone dry.
If sea level rises significantly and the public doesn't prepare, warns Joe Pelczarski, senior planner with the Massachusetts office of Coastal Zone Management, ''Every storm would be a misery and we'd be well into disaster scenario.''
Louisiana doesn't have to wait for the 21st century for a ''disaster scenario'': it's here.
Already, federal, state, and local officials are taking extraordinary measures to stem the rising tide, from raising roads to rebuilding islands to diverting the river to areas that need sediment. Coast 2050, a state and federal plan, calls for $14 billion in coastal restoration projects over the next 30 years.
The trouble is, Louisiana has less than 10 percent of the funding necessary to carry out Coast 2050, which would be the largest ecological restoration project in US history, almost twice as large as the current record holder, the restoration of the Florida Everglades.
''Louisiana is dedicated to restoring the coast as best we can, but we are a poor state,'' said state Natural Resources Secretary Jack Caldwell, who recently shepherded $15 million for coastal restoration through the Legislature to prove to Congress that the state is serious.
Caldwell is pinning his hopes on the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, a bill in Congress that would divert offshore oil-and-gas tax revenues to coastal states, with special provisions for Louisiana. Because the sinking delta is so important to US fishing as well as energy interests, Caldwell says its problems should be solved at a national level, too.
Unfortunately, solving Louisiana's erosion problem may be only a down payment toward coping with higher sea levels. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that improving coastal defenses nationally to face higher water will probably cost more than $100 billion in the next century.
''We are the prototype for accelerated sea level rise. If you're looking for strategies of how people cope,'' Louisiana will be the model, said Paul Kemp, a coastal geologist at Louisiana State University.
The people of south Louisiana have always had to live with the deceptive power of the Mississippi River, which carries sediment from 31 states as it wends its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. Over the last 5,000 years, the river created 7,000 square miles of land in the delta where residents developed precise words such as ''sloo'' and ''chenier'' to describe the meeting place of land and water.
But the French, Native American, and other ethnic groups who settled the region knew that, just as the river could build, it could also destroy. The great flood of 1927 gave New Orleans such a fright that officials strategically dynamited the levee so that the swollen river destroyed other communities and buried them under 18 inches of sediment.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the very measures they took to tame the Mississippi were stealing the land from beneath their feet. The levee system effectively channeled the river so that it delivered its sediments, not to the delta, but into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico where, ironically, the fresh water has proved toxic, causing algae blooms that suck up most of the oxygen in a ''dead zone'' where few fish can live.
The oil and gas industry exacerbated erosion by cutting scores of canals through the delta for pipelines and workers, allowing salt water into the interior of the marshes. Meanwhile, sea level rose by about a foot in the past century, allowing storms to reach farther inland than before.
''It's like Pogo said, `We have met the enemy and he is us,''' said Mark Davis, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Coastal Restoration Coalition, referring to the title character of a comic strip.
Yet, even though analysts agree on the causes of Louisiana's problem, finding a solution has proved difficult. The sinking delta is so enormous that state and federal officials ended up funding small, often ineffectual, experiments through the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, ironically, the cornerstone to Louisiana's strategy to save the land is to bring in more water, cutting gates in the levees that hold the Mississippi so that its rich sediment can reach eroding areas. The main river diversion so far, the $26 million Caernarvon Project in Plaquemines Parish, has rebuilt at least 450 acres of soft, mucky land since 1991, and created a world-class bass fishing area.
''Without this diversion, this marsh would die,'' said Donald Ansardi, pointing from his airboat across a meadow studded with black willow trees that have sprouted in the last five years. Ansardi, land manager for Delacroix Corp., which owns the marsh, said freshwater from Caernarvon has prevented salt water from killing the grass and trees.
But river diversions have stirred opposition from those who worry they may do more harm than good and ruin water quality. Oystermen have sued the state over the Caernarvon project, arguing that the infusion of fresh water has damaged salt-water oyster beds. Likewise, Louisiana Governor Mike Foster vetoed an $87 million diversion after concerns were raised that it could spoil Lake Pontchartrain.
The only other option is to build more fortifications. Already going forward are a $350 million plan to elevate the road to Port Fourchon and a $36 million proposal to build up barrier islands that are the first line of defense against tropical storms and hurricanes as they come ashore.
On East Timbalier Island, secretary Caldwell beams at the hundreds of pelicans roosting near the black mangrove trees planted by an oil company a few years ago. The island was on a track to sink completely by 2005, but it has received more than a million cubic yards of sand plus a new sea wall, courtesy of a National Marine Fisheries Service restoration fund.
To Caldwell, the island shows that state and federal officials can counterattack erosion - if they have the resources. By his calculation, the state needs more than $400 million a year in federal funding rather than the $40 million a year they now get.
''If you give us the money, we can do it. This is not experimental. We've been experimenting for 10 years,'' he said.
But, in some ways, all of coastal Louisiana is an experiment, one that other coastal regions are watching with varying degrees of alarm as the damage and repair costs mount. Other states know that global warming, driven by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, could eventually raise the sea level so much that they will be in the same expensive boat as Louisiana.
And the people of Louisiana have a message for the world as nations brace for the erosion problems of the 21st century: It's better to prevent the sea-level rise in the first place rather than try to fight its effects as they are doing now. As Davis of the Coastal Restoration Council said, ''We're starting to gain some respect for God as an engineer.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 11/07/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.