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A Blueprint for Hope on Louisiana's Gulf Coast

August 22, 2017
The Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition plays critical role in plan to protect disappearing wetlands

There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed the only environmental news coming out of coastal Louisiana was bad news.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005, wreaked havoc on the wetlands that form a protective barrier around southern Louisiana and New Orleans, the engine of the state’s economy. Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008, and Isaac in 2012, further accelerated the loss of precious land along the coast. The 2010 oil spill dumped more than 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico and polluted hundreds of miles of shoreline in Louisiana and its four neighboring Gulf states.

The enormous damage caused by those events revealed how incredibly vulnerable the Gulf Coast has become to catastrophic natural and man-made disasters. They increased national awareness about the long-term calamity unfolding along the Gulf, wetlands loss caused by sea level rise and the straight jacketing of the Mississippi River by levees that prevent land-building sediment to restore the coast.

But opportunity often emerges from crisis.

Over the past 10 years, national and locally-rooted conservation groups have played a critical role in ensuring Louisiana developed a meaningful vision for the restoration of its coastal wetlands.

The Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition (MRD), comprised of five member organizations and supported by the Walton Family Foundation, grew from a recognition of the potential – at a moment in time when tragedy focused the global spotlight on the Gulf Coast – to unite disparate stakeholders around a comprehensive coastal recovery plan.

Starting in 2007, the foundation supported scientific research, studying how best to divert the Mississippi River below New Orleans and allow sediment to begin rebuilding land, and policy advocacy to design a strategy for implementing large-scale restoration projects. The Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition officially formed in 2011 following the oil spill, amid united recognition among governments at all levels of the urgency of the land-loss problems facing the Gulf Coast. The core executive team includes the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, though the coalition partners with organizations across the state and region.

That worked helped solidify political support – across ideological lines – for passage in 2012 of its science-based, 50-year protection, restoration and adaptation roadmap, the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan. Subsequent passage of the federal RESTORE Act allocated 80% of the Gulf oil spill fines and penalties to spill-affected states, creating access to the funds needed to kick start the largest restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.

Over the next four years, the foundation backed the coalition’s work to flesh out more details about specific projects, timelines and impacts. The work helped to secure commitments from public partners at all levels to move forward with science-based restoration.

The foundation partners with the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition because we believe in finding coastal restoration solutions that protect the environment and generate economic growth.

Coastal land loss threatens not just Louisiana’s economy but the nation’s prosperity as well.

Wetlands loss in Louisiana puts at risk a third of the nation’s domestic oil production, 10 of its largest shipping ports and 40% of all the seafood harvested in the lower 48 states.

The Louisiana legislature’s unanimous passage, in June 2017, of its updated $50 billion Coastal Master Plan, is evidence of how good ideas and practical solutions can win broad political and public support.

The state deserves enormous credit for taking a science-based approach to make sure the money it receives for restoration goes to the best projects. Steve Cochran, who chairs the coalition, has described the master plan as a blueprint of hope for the coast.

But the work – of the coalition and of government – is far from done. In June, the foundation announced a $15 million grant to the MRD coalition, over two years, as it supports Louisiana’s implementation of the coastal master plan.

Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost more than 2,000 square miles of wetlands, about the size of Delaware. The pace of loss – about a football field of land every hour – is unsustainable.

It’s vital that construction on major projects like the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, on the west bank of the Mississippi River levee below New Orleans, proceed as quickly as possible. The diversion would build wetlands by sending up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of water and sediment at controlled times.

“The river, and the sediment in it, built the land that we live on in Louisiana. We walk on it every day. We stopped the process of that land building when we built the Mississippi River levees” says Steve.

“We have projects now underway or in the planning and permitting process – to re-engage the river, to redistribute the river and the sediment, to rebuild land and protect Louisiana. The clock has been running far too long on these projects. Time is not on our side. We have to do everything we can to hurry history.

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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