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.