It’s time to invest in our nation’s coastal infrastructure

It’s time to invest in our nation’s coastal infrastructure
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The Louisiana coast is in the midst of a land loss crisis with dramatic implications for our nation’s economy, environment, culture and people. As Congress begins to look at support for water resources in the coming year, we offer some lessons from the front.

Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost about 1,900 square miles of land to the Gulf of Mexico. Without action, we are projected to lose up to another 4,000 square miles within the next 50 years.


These statistics underlie a dramatic challenge for our communities — and the nation’s economy. Louisiana’s threatened coastal areas and wetlands provide storm-buffering protection and support for:


  • millions of people, including metropolitan areas such as New Orleans
  • nationally significant energy production, transportation, and petroleum and chemical refining infrastructure
  • globally significant port facilities, including the largest port complex in the nation
  • world-class habitat for countless wildlife species, including a huge diversity of commercial and recreational fisheries

While the crisis along Louisiana’s coast is unique, its challenges are reflected throughout the southeastern U.S. and across the country, where flood and storm damages, and the costs associated with these disasters, are escalating at an alarming rate.

America’s coastal areas are responsible for 42 percent of national economic output, contribute 51 million jobs and $2.8 trillion in wages, and are home to some 123 million Americans. Without significant upgrades in coastal resiliency, these residents, communities, ecosystems, and economic assets are at substantial, unacceptable risk.

So what is the solution set? Our experience in Louisiana provides key perspectives:

  • Coastlines are complex systems, and each area requires carefully considered measures to adapt to changing conditions.
  • No engineered or natural structure is 100 percent effective against all storms, but structural solutions can be rendered far more effective in concert with restored natural features and processes.
  • Our nation’s wetlands and floodplains are themselves critical infrastructure that need to be restored to reduce the impacts and costs of floods and storms.

In Louisiana, rather than pitting gray vs. green infrastructure, we’ve pursued the integration and utilization of all infrastructure types for maximum, sustainable benefits and protection for communities.

Central to this approach is Louisiana’s Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, a comprehensive state planning initiative based on cutting-edge science and modeling. It’s driven by priorities, recognizes finite funding, and enjoys powerful bipartisan support in Louisiana.

The plan is iterative and requires updating every five years to continually incorporate the latest science. Each update must be approved by the state legislature — where each of its three iterations have been unanimously approved — and its annual funding plan also must pass the legislature.

As important, the plan is informed by an exceptional and growing public engagement process, giving communities a voice in its development. We strongly recommend that other areas facing significant flooding challenges examine the plan’s approach as a useful guide. 

In the plan, gray projects like rocked shorelines or levees are combined with restored wetlands, barrier islands, and oyster reefs, as well as non-structural approaches like elevated buildings and voluntary relocation. 

These measures are organized to create a “multiple lines of defense” approach to protection and sustainability. Restoring critical ecosystem functions while addressing structural needs and community resiliency provides the best chance to minimize losses and maintain the vibrancy and security of Louisiana’s coast.

Natural defenses also offer significant co-benefits. Oyster reefs can reduce wave heights, wetlands can absorb floodwaters and storm surges, and maritime, swamp and mangrove forests can lower wind speeds. Meanwhile, these features can enhance the integrity of engineered features and extend the useful life of traditional infrastructure, protecting ports and other assets. Not coincidentally, such features support the outdoor and natural resource economies, because they are themselves vital wildlife habitat.

An essential component of Louisiana’s integrated strategy is a series of controlled structures called sediment diversions. These projects will be built through the Mississippi River levees, allowing the highly-controlled capture of the natural land-building potential of the river, directing fresh water and sediment into targeted adjacent areas to rebuild and sustain functioning wetland habitat.

These restored wetlands in turn will help protect coastal infrastructure and assets, including the Mississippi River levees themselves, ports, and coastal communities. Large-scale sediment diversions will be used in strategic places along the Mississippi River, starting with the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion south of New Orleans.

This innovative approach to natural resource restoration and community protection is the kind of thinking, adapted to the particular needs of different areas, that we encourage across the country — particularly as needs become more pressing, and resources stretched thin.

Steve Cochran is the director of Restore the Mississippi River Delta, a coalition of Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.