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Mercury Rising.
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Sinking Fast
  Saving Lousiana’s Disappearing Bayou
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The Planet
Sinking Fast

Gulf Coast activists resolve to save Lousiana’s disappearing bayou

By Brian Vanneman

Every year, 25 to 35 square miles of Louisiana’s bayou country—an area larger than Manhattan—sinks into the Gulf of Mexico. Since the 1930s, an area about the size of Rhode Island has disappeared. And without immediate and focused intervention, the rate of loss is likely to accelerate.

The Gulf inches washes closer to a coastal Louisiana home, above. Barbara and Maurice Coman, at bottom, are fighting for the preservation of the the coast's rich wildlife habitats—and for the area's future as a population and economic center. (Top and center photos courtesy of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.)

Maurice Coman, a longtime kayaker and Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee (GCRCC) chair, loves to paddle through these disappearing marshlands near his Metairie, Louisiana, home, especially in the spring. "Can’t go out too much until after the storm clouds settle," he says. Then he’s free to meander through little-visited backwater bayous, surrounded by tall grasses, vast flocks of migratory birds, and gentle ridges topped by cypress and live oak.

Coman and his fellow conservation committee members jumpstarted their campaign to limit coastal erosion after their annual meeting at the DeFelice Marine Center—a complex perched at the dead end of Highway 56, in the heart of Louisiana’s vast wetlands. Tom Douglas, a bird-lover, chemistry professor, and committee member from Houston, was shocked by the far-reaching implications of the sinking wetlands. "Many of the birds we have in Texas—great blue herons, snowy and American egrets—also migrate through Louisiana," he said, "and they depend on the abundant water life there for survival." In fact, some five million migratory birds, traveling from as far as Canada and Brazil, pass through the area every year. After long travels, they depend on the shrimp and fish whose habitats are endangered by coastal subsidence.

Unlike other wildlands issues important to the Club, there is no clear wrongdoer, and the beneficiaries of a restored coast are unusually broad.

The "straight-jacketing" of the Mississippi River is usually listed first among the causes of coastal subsidence. After the great flood of 1927, residents of the floodplain demanded action, and the Army Corps of Engineers responded by building levees as much as 30 feet high along the length of the river. But the rich sediment that the erratic branches of the Mississippi had once deposited throughout Louisiana is now funneled right to the Gulf of Mexico and dumped over the continental shelf. The broad coastal plain—more than 40 miles wide from Baton Rouge to the Gulf—is now denied the sediment it had received for thousands of years. So inland areas built on loose silt, like New Orleans, are subsiding. The tides and fierce storms of the Gulf wash away the coast’s outlying coastal marshes and beaches. Of the entire 18,000-square-mile coastal zone, more than 96 percent is less than two feet above sea level.

But there are other notable causes. The thousands of oil and gas pipelines and pump stations that cut through the fragile landscape create canals where saltwater can enter and erode the swamps. Canals constructed for waterborne commerce cause the same problems. And the rise in sea level caused by global warming is also cited as a cause of lost land.

As scientific data and observed evidence of Louisiana’s disappearing coast has mounted, the state government and other institutions have scrambled for solutions. But, argues Coman, the reaction thus far has failed to match the scale of the problem. Louisiana’s 1990 Breaux Act got the ball rolling by establishing what are now more than 80 separate restoration projects. Then came the "Coast 2050" initiative—a plan assembled over the past three years by a broad coalition of environmental groups, academics, the Lousiana Coastal Authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a group that reports directly to President Bush, is reviewing Coast 2050. It can approve, reject, or make revisions to the plan, and if all goes as Coman is hoping, CEQ will eventually return it to be ratified by the Coastal Authority and Louisiana citizens. "Now is the time for Sierra Club members to tell the Bush administration that environmental issues must be addressed in the coastal restoration plan," says Coman.

Stakeholders in the restoration of coastal Louisiana extend well beyond the Sierra Club and typical environmental partners. The future of millions of coastal residents, Louisiana’s considerable fishing industry, Mississippi barge operators, and even the oil and natural gas industries, all depend on a coastal plain that remains above sea level.

While coastal lands are carried away by the tides, greater New Orleans, with a population of 1.2 million, is sinking. Within 50 years, the Gulf could be within a few miles of the French Quarter. The delta coastland surrounding the city on all sides also protects it from winter hurricanes. As the low-lying bayou disappears, the unique culture of Southern Louisiana’s Cajun people is also threatened. Isolated by a landscape far more hospitable to boats than cars, and set apart by history and their French-inflected dialect, the generally poor Cajun fishers can do nothing to stop their fishing grounds from moving or disappearing, and their homes from becoming uninhabitable.

Coastal fisheries—which supply 30 percent of America’s seafood—are also in jeopardy. Finally, oil and gas giants like Shell crave federal assistance because their pipelines and facilities—now at least somewhat protected—could be left vulnerable to the tides if the coast keeps sinking. That could cause pipelines to rupture, lead to untold consequences for coastal habitats and wildlife, and massive lawsuits against the energy companies.

Coman does not begrudge business interests for helping to bring Louisiana’s coastal crisis to the attention of the state and federal government. But he vows to make sure that corporate interests do not overshadow environmental priorities. "If a plan comes down [from the Council on Environmental Quality] that supports industry exclusively, we will not support it," says Coman. The Sierra Club joined the Coalition to Restore Coastal Lousiana, the Gulf Restoration Network, and seven other environmental groups to establish eight key conservation principles that must be met in order to win their endorsement. "In this environment, with the federal budget being so tight, we know that the CEQ will want everyone’s full support in order to allocate money. So we feel our point of view will be heard," says Coman.

Everyone wants to fix the problem, but the price tag is steep. Coast 2050 seeks a $14 billion budget from federal and state governments to complete the necessary river diversion and coastal breakwater projects.

But like the Florida Everglades or the Grand Canyon, says Coman, the Louisiana coast is a national treasure. "If one of the Sierra Nevada mountains was disappearing every year, we wouldn’t just stand by and let it happen," he says.

Urge the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality to address Louisiana’s disappearing coast with a Coast 2050 plan that adheres to the eight principles drafted by environmental stakeholders.

Write to: James L. Connaughton; Chairman, Council on Environmental Quality, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.

Or contact Maurice Coman, Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee Chair, at

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