Why the coast is key to the survival of New Orleans

August 27, 2010


The following is a guest post by Mark Davis, a senior research fellow and director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane Law School. The opinions expressed are his own.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill the importance of the ecosystems surrounding New Orleans, and their vulnerability to mankind’s manipulations and mistakes, has never been clearer. Equally clear is the fact that for New Orleans to transform itself and create a better future, the metropolitan area must enter into a new, wiser relationship with the land and water surrounding it.

The fate and fortune of New Orleans have always been, and will always be, tied to the coast. In the past, New Orleans has had a troubled relationship with its watery environs. The proximity to the Mississippi River and the Gulf made the city’s founding and its rise to prominence possible. But the risk of flooding from the river, torrential rains, and the Gulf made it a hard bargain with nature from the beginning.

The vulnerability of New Orleans to storms and rising seas has been growing for more than 100 years as the buffering coast began to erode. Because the causes of that coastal collapse are mostly traceable to economic activity such as oil and gas canals, dredging navigation canals, draining and filling wetlands for development, it was easy — indeed, it was policy — to discount the growing risks and to blindly hope somehow things wouldn’t get bad and, if they did, someone else would fix them.

Water also shaped the distinctive culture of the region. The port of New Orleans made the city one of the great points of entry for immigrants, adding a cosmopolitan flavor to the city known in only a handful of other American places. In stark contrast to the metropolis of New Orleans, the meandering bayous, bays, lakes, swamps, and marshes of the surrounding delta gave isolating refuge to Native Americans, expatriate Acadians (today’s Cajuns), runaway slaves, Vietnamese, and others, forging a network of landscape-oriented cultures that remains, at least for now.

Today, New Orleans’ recovery and prosperity are tied to reestablishing sustainability to its surrounding landscape.

This is not a challenge covered by old school urban renewal, new urbanism, smart growth, or any other planning approach of the moment. The future of New Orleans is dependent upon nothing less than a mutual survival pact with nature, starting with the wetland ecosystem of coastal Louisiana.

Five years after Katrina, it is fair to ask if that is happening. The best — and most optimistic — answer to that question is “maybe.” A strong foundation is being laid, but it is too early to know what will be built upon it.

After years of indifference to environmental stewardship, Katrina forced a day of reckoning. In the space of six months, Louisiana fundamentally revamped its entire approach to dealing with the coast. In a dicey but essential move, storm protection, wetland conservation, and coastal restoration were integrated into a single state authority, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. By mid-2007, the state had developed a master plan that took a more honest and urgent look at the coast and state’s future.

In 2006, the state took what many thought was an unimaginable step.  When the Minerals Management Service put up a portion of the Outer Continental Shelf for oil drilling, Louisiana sued to stop the lease, claiming the deal did not include enough protection for the area’s environment.

The disdainful response of MMS and the petroleum industry to the state’s demand was a chilling portent of the profoundly dysfunctional approach to safety and environmental risk management that became clear after Deepwater Horizon went down. Though settled, the suit revealed much of what was wrong with MMS’s approach to offshore oil and gas development.

The suit also shifted the political landscape to allow the federal government to begin sharing the revenues it received from outer continental shelf oil energy development with states like Louisiana that serve as its support base. By law, Louisiana dedicated all its share of those revenues to coastal protection and restoration.

None of these steps taken by Louisiana so far are enough to save the coast, and there have been unsettling signs that when push comes to shove the state will settle for living behind levees instead of doing what’s necessary — such as wetland conservation, land-use planning, and funding coastal restoration — to strike a sustainable balance between environmental stewardship, economic development, and storm protection.

We don’t get to grade on a curve for this. Doing better is not a substitute for doing what is essential.

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