Communities across our country are enduring the impacts of extreme weather, from hurricanes and flooding along our coasts and watersheds to drought and wildfires in the West. These disasters are disrupting lives and livelihoods, and scientists indicate these impacts will only grow more severe without action.
However, an unprecedented opportunity exists now to invest in a more climate-ready future. Leaders at the state and local levels can leverage funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to look beyond just roads and bridges and strengthen our nation’s natural infrastructure. By restoring wetlands and floodplains and strengthening aquifers, we can invest in solutions that protect people, property and natural resources.
If state governments are seeking inspiration about where to begin, they should look to Louisiana’s playbook and listen to the people and communities turning conservation plans into action. Having spent decades working to restore the fragile ecosystems of the Gulf Coast region, Louisianians know firsthand how powerful these efforts have been and how other states can learn from the experiences.
Recent research shows that wetlands provide $450 billion in annual global protection along coastal regions and help save 4,600 lives each year. Projects that utilize these natural solutions are faster to implement than seawalls or levees, improve quality of life for nearby residents, provide jobs, clean water and enhance wildlife habitat. Moreover, they’re popular: Restoring wetlands to mitigate climate impacts is backed by 82% of Americans, with support across the political spectrum.
With voters largely aligned around these concepts, the next challenge is creating alignment among communities, experts and policymakers at all levels — which is where Louisiana offers a compelling model. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, local, state and federal leaders developed Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, a uniquely comprehensive guide to restoring and safeguarding its coast.
Unprecedented at the time in its scale and detail, the plan allowed state leaders to make the case to federal leaders that they would make the best investments with whatever dollars became available. This created buy-in about the path forward, which is critical for moving projects at this scale.
Crucially, the Coastal Master Plan was designed to be a living plan, consistently updated and improved every six years (the next version is slated for release in 2023) through an iterative process that incorporates the latest scientific research, recent ecological developments and community input.
Following another unprecedented disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan was critical to securing passage of the RESTORE Act, federal legislation that directed oil spill settlement dollars back to the Gulf States to repair the damage done to ecosystems and communities.
This transformative legislation, passed a decade ago this summer, did more than just help repair the damage; it provided desperately needed funding for long-term initiatives to bolster the coastal resilience of Gulf states against extreme weather, particularly through natural infrastructure. By restoring wetlands and fortifying its natural coastal ecosystems, Louisiana is leveraging the power of nature to solve big problems, and not at a moment too soon.
The latest projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 10-12 inches of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline over the next 30 years, profoundly increasing the impacts of flooding in a region that is routinely battered by storms.
As a result of federal relief funds and Louisiana’s thoughtful, science-based planning, many projects to help fortify communities and ecosystems against climate change are already moving forward.
The Golden Triangle Marsh Creation project is one such example, using sediment from nearby Lake Borgne to create and restore marshland, which helps protect highly populated areas around New Orleans. The planned River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project aims to reconnect the Mississippi River to the swamp, sustaining it into the future as critical habitat for wildlife and natural protection for people. These measures will pay dividends in the form of biodiversity and flooding protection, and it’s vital that similar projects move forward in other states as well.
Amid the escalating climate crisis, federal funding sources like those made available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law present unparalleled opportunities to harness the power of nature to better mitigate the impacts of climate change. Investments in natural infrastructure support both people and wildlife to withstand impacts, all while delivering added benefits in the form of jobs, ecological restoration and quality of life improvements.
As Americans reckon with the changes in climate that are already underway, our leaders have an obligation to act immediately. Louisiana’s bold vision and detailed planning provide a living model for how other states can take full advantage of this once-in-a-generation funding opportunity and invest in their long-term resilience.
This article originally appeared in The Advocate on Aug. 12, 2022.