Coastal Louisiana faces many challenges, but we’re not helpless

By Justin R. Ehrenwerth
President and CEO

In February, Times-Picayune and The New York Times released the meticulously researched special report “Our Drowning Coast,” which highlighted the complicated nature of addressing ecosystem challenges that are intrinsically linked to a community’s economy, safety, and culture. The many stressors impacting coastal communities – sea level rise, subsidence, and the next storm – are a given. In fact, we have every reason to believe that if left unaddressed, these challenges will grow. It can be so daunting that it can leave you feeling hopeless.

Yet by no means does the scale of the challenge facing coastal communities in Louisiana and around the world mean we are without options to adapt and thrive. Many of the world’s greatest cities were strategically established at the water’s edge and many are facing the same future Louisiana is now addressing. In mid-May, water experts from across the Interstate 10 corridor – from Los Angeles to Jacksonville – along with an international contingent from Paris, Mexico City, and the Netherlands converged at The Water Campus in Baton Rouge for the inaugural 10X Summit to discuss these very issues of how to live with too much, and not enough, water. Just last week, the State of the Coast conference brought together more than 1,000 scientists, elected officials, land managers, policy experts, and interested residents to meet and discuss challenges, progress and to develop collaborative solutions. Gov. John Bel Edwards rightly said that Louisiana is writing its own path towards a more resilient future and is on par with the great water managers of the world.

Part of the answer is in the approach we’re taking. The interconnectedness of people and the coastal landscape means that no single discipline, whether it be hydrology, ecology, or geography, can bring the holistic view needed to develop the best solutions. It’s instead important to bring together a variety of research and policy expertise, while engaging the public, to best examine the pros and cons of different solutions.

That was the case in the development of the 2017 Coastal Master Plan in Louisiana. Based in science and informed by numerous stakeholder engagement activities, the plan represents an agreed upon course of action. A strong integration of community knowledge with scientific knowledge for better decision making becomes essential when addressing challenges along the “working coast” of Louisiana.

The Institute is also developing tools that can help keep people and property safer. A pilot project in southwest Louisiana has us updating watershed models and implementing a real-time flood forecasting tool. Flooding is nothing new to Louisiana and the risk of heavy rainfall-induced flooding is on the rise. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of rain falling during heavy rainstorms in the southeast has increased by 27 percent since 1958. While a real-time forecasting tool can’t prevent flooding, it can give public administrators, emergency first responders, and communities advanced warning and provide critical input for future planning.

Then there’s the question of how to pay for all this work. While it’s true Louisiana has only identified some of the money needed to fully implement its Coastal Master Plan, there are public-private partnerships along coastal Louisiana working to supplement those efforts.

Currently, in south Louisiana, a collaboration of public and private organizations is working with the Institute on several projects designed to find the best way to use future dredge material beneficially for better flood protection and habitat preservation – a win-win for the environment, economy, and communities across the coast.

The question of sustainability in a changing environment isn’t just a local challenge. The “Our Drowning Coast” headline is one that is already appropriate elsewhere in this country and in many places around the world. For example, the Institute is working with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme to measure and model wave action around Taveuni Island, Fiji in an effort to inform local coastal erosion prevention efforts. With our vast knowledge base and experience, in not only coastal science but in adapting to a changing environment, Louisiana is uniquely positioned to take what we’ve learned here and export that knowledge to communities who are, or will soon, be facing similar challenges.