Louisiana's barrier islands don't look like much. Dozens of the long, narrow masses form a loose chain around the state's southeastern coastline, and many rise only a couple of feet above the surface of the ocean. Erosion is an inevitable foe for any sandy expanse, but in recent years these islands have begun to contract at an alarming rate—so quickly that the thousands-year-old features may disappear entirely by the end of the century. Losing these wisps of land would be disastrous. Without them, powerful storms would slam coastal towns, seaports, and wetlands. The calm waters behind their protective front would vanish, and with them the nurseries where fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters reproduce and raise their young, and where 100 million birds live, nest, or stop to rest and refuel on their long-haul flights during migration.
Louisiana is in a race against time, says Governor John Bel Edwards. “If we don't restore these barrier islands, then our future is in peril,” he told me. “That land is the first line of defense. What we cannot have is a situation where the Gulf of Mexico is lapping at the levees of New Orleans.”
The causes of this vanishing act are many and familiar. Oil- and gas-industry canals have fragmented coastal wetlands, allowing salt water to surge inland and setting the islands adrift from the coasts they typically hug. The channelization of the Mississippi River has starved wetlands of sediment, their basic building block, and carried much of the sand that would otherwise be growing barrier islands deep into the Gulf of Mexico. What's more, Louisiana's coast is naturally subsiding while sea levels are rising; water is creeping up half an inch a year, relentlessly devouring more shoreline. And then there are the numerous storms and the BP oil spill, which have battered the islands. As the climate continues to warm, sea level here is projected to rise more than 6.5 feet by 2100, and more intense storms will tear away at the islands, causing the growing watery maw of the Gulf of Mexico to expand, leaving the coast, and its inhabitants, increasingly exposed.
After years of uncoordinated efforts to stem coastal land loss, Louisiana now has a master plan. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), formed in 2005 in response to the vicious pummeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, has created a detailed restoration agenda, the latest iteration of which the state legislature approved in June. Two of the plan's most critical components involve rebuilding barrier island systems and intentionally engineering cuts in the Mississippi River's levee system to allow the great sediment-laden river to replenish and rebuild coastal wetlands. It's a colossal undertaking, and the largest coastal restoration project in American history. Re-engineering Louisiana's vast barrier islands and wetlands, and constructing other protective infrastructure such as flood walls and levees, will cost $50 billion or more over the next 50 years.
In an ironic twist, the 2010 BP oil spill has enabled this astronomically expensive plan to begin to be put into action. Louisiana will receive $7.1 billion for restoration work from the fines paid by those responsible for Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 people and released 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf. There are several funding streams related to the disaster, including more than $810 million in RESTORE Act funds, some of which will begin flowing this year, $5 billion from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), and nearly $1.3 billion from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund.
Louisiana has already started restoration work, making use of BP oil-spill funds and other resources. Leaders know that everything is on the line. “Our actions over the next two decades,” reads the master plan, “will decide whether Louisiana's coast survives.” Its survival is important not just to local people and wildlife. Any American who puts gasoline in her car, uses plastic, or eats shrimp is utilizing a product that may well have been extracted, forged, or harvested in coastal Louisiana. Without a healthy barrier island system, all of this is at risk.
At a remote Louisiana marine lab, coastal geologist Alex Kolker opens Google Maps and describes how the state's barrier islands came to be. He zooms in on South Pass, located about 100 miles southeast of New Orleans. Here a large branch of the Mississippi enters the Gulf of Mexico. The fresh water slows as it hits the ocean, Kolker explains, and heavier sediment, such as sand, drops out, creating a massive pile. Wind and waves batter the pile into a long, thin line. “This is your proto-barrier island,” says Kolker. (It's also one of the few places in Louisiana where the Mississippi is still building land.)
Over a few hundred years a proto-barrier island grows into a mature barrier island with a wide beach, a strip of dunes, and a back marsh. The Mississippi's ability to deposit sediment and sand has literally built southeastern Louisiana, both its coastal wetlands and its barrier islands. About once every thousand years the river naturally shifts course, sending its sediment down a new path. Once the river moves, the marshes and islands along the old path start eroding into the sea. Historically, the river built land in the newly opened area and Louisiana kept growing, but the Army Corps of Engineers and others have clogged the Mississippi with dams and locks, and dikes and levees have helped funnel its rich sediment out to sea, rather than letting it accumulate along the coast. “Barring a zombie apocalypse, I don't see us going back to a natural state at any point in the foreseeable millennia,” says Kolker. “The fact is, humans are the major driver of natural processes on the planet today.”
Louisiana's master plan recognizes that reality. “We know our coast is going to change, so we have two choices,” says Bren Haase, a chief developer of the plan. “We can allow it to degrade and fall apart and have that dictate where we live and what we do on our coast, or we can manage that change—and that is what we are attempting to do.”
The CPRA is presently undertaking projects on Louisiana's Barataria Basin Barrier Island Chain and headlands. The total cost will be roughly half a billion dollars, and all funds come from BP oil-spill fines—$7.3 million from RESTORE; $153.6 million from the NFWF; $318 million from the NRDA. Hundreds of millions of cubic yards of sand, collected offshore, will rebuild beaches, dunes, and back-barrier marsh habitats, enabling these islands to once again serve as substantial buffers.
In March the CPRA completed its largest barrier island restoration project yet, at Caminada Headland. This 13-mile-long barrier island system offers crucial protection for the neighboring oil port, Fourchon, and includes Elmer's Island, a popular beach for anglers and birders. Though Caminada was outside Hurricane Katrina's destruction zone, Elmer's Island was pummeled by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again by Hurricane Gustav in 2008. In 2010 oil from BP's leaking Macondo well washed ashore, lacing beaches with gooey oil tar balls the diameter of tea plates and choking the back marshes in toxic black gunk. Then, in 2012, Hurricane Isaac hit. These events devastated the headland. Hurricane waves and storm surges devoured beaches, causing extensive shoreline loss, and mighty winds and surges yanked apart wetlands.
On a hot April morning, I arrive at Elmer's Island to search for Wilson's Plovers. I join Audubon Louisiana's director of bird conservation, Erik Johnson, and two seasonal coastal technicians, Sarah Bolinger and Melinda Averhart. Audubon Louisiana helped advise which projects the master plan should prioritize, based on factors like where migrating birds forage and breed, and its shorebird surveys will help gauge how birds respond to the restoration work. On this spring day, plovers are just arriving from their mysterious Central American wintering grounds, and Johnson's crew is looking for mating pairs to band; the Least Terns they'll also monitor are still en route. “Before the restoration, we would have been up to our chests in water,” says Johnson, gesturing at the expansive beach we're standing on.
The $216 million project was funded largely through criminal fines paid by BP and Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig. Workers dredged 9 million cubic yards of sand from a shoal 30 miles offshore, barged it to the coast, and pumped it by pipe onto the beach, creating 1,059 acres of new barrier, dune, and beach habitat. Johnson shows me how the seven-foot-tall dunes are expanding, thanks to fencing that traps sand. He points to a wide sandflat behind the dunes that leads into a rich marshland. Reddish Egrets, decimated by plume hunters in the late 1800s but now staging a comeback thanks to Audubon-led conservation efforts, run swiftly through the shallows, leaping into the air, and stabbing fish. Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails, Tricolored Herons, and Common Nighthawks nest in the back marsh, where they dine on abundant shore crabs, spiders, and other marine life invertebrates, and, in the case of the nighthawks, flying insects.
“Where the beach meets the marsh is the area that plovers love,” says Johnson, indicating the wide sandflat. Sure enough, later that morning they attract a pair of plovers, using a homemade clay decoy and a smartphone recording of a chick in distress. They mist-net and band the duo as part of their work to track the plover population as the newly restored beach matures. “The overarching question is: How do individual birds and their local populations respond to the new habitat created by the coastal restoration?” says Johnson. Over the course of the breeding season, his team will record some 500 Least Tern nesting pairs and 30 nesting Wilson's Plover pairs on this restored beach.
If you rebuild barrier island dunes, the birds, it seems, will come. Yet that herculean effort alone isn't enough to ensure they thrive. Johnson spots coyote tracks in the same area of the marsh where we're banding plovers. “Nest success last year here was absolutely terrible,” he says. “We very much attributed that to coyote predation of eggs.” To avoid the same fate this season, Bolinger and Averhart will set up nearly a half-mile of electric fencing around areas, and spend countless hours restaking the posts that fall over in the slippery sand. They'll also talk to hundreds of beachgoers about the importance of respecting the fenced-off areas, and making sure their dogs do, too. When the birds are young and fragile, every little bit helps.
Every angler has his favorite spot. Jerry Gonzales's is beside a fallen tree trunk on a back bayou 30 minutes from downtown New Orleans. To get there we drive east on St. Claude Avenue, passing a popular neighborhood dance studio and a string of new restaurants before crossing over a canal and continuing through the Lower 9th Ward, the New Orleans neighborhood famous for its music—Fats Domino grew up there—as well as devastating flooding during Hurricane Katrina. We cross rural, swampy St. Bernard Parish on a local highway, turn off on a rural road, and park. We follow a faint footpath through dense brush to Gonzales's log. “I love it out here,” he tells me, taking in a deep lungful of fresh air. He comes to escape the noise and bustle of the city, and to catch local favorites like redfish, speckled trout, drum, and sheepshead, much of which he brings back to give to friends in the Faubourg Marigny, a picturesque 200-year-old neighborhood that borders the French Quarter.
This is the New Orleans way, it is the Louisiana way, and as the state's coast slips into the sea, it is a way of life that is very much in jeopardy. The marshes near Gonzales's fishing spot are falling victim to Louisiana's epic disappearing act, slowly eroding into Breton Sound. Saving the sound, and nearby Barataria Bay, is one of the more ambitious parts of the entire master plan.
The proposed Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion will be located on the east bank of the Mississippi, about 30 miles downriver from New Orleans, and 68 miles above Head of Passes, where the river breaks off into three separate flows that carry it out into the Gulf of Mexico. The project will create a controlled gateway in the Mississippi River levee system, allowing a portion of the river's sediment-laden flow—35,000 cubic feet per second, or about 6 percent of the Mississippi's discharge—to flow out into Breton Sound, whose coastal wetlands are fracturing into oblivion. Breton Sound has lost more than 160 square miles of land since 1932, and as locals will tell you time and again, what used to be marsh is now water. The diversion will introduce an estimated 70 million tons of new sediment over a 50-year period, serving as the foundation for the formation of thousands of acres of new wetlands. These wetlands will be habitat for the crabs and fish that anglers like Gonzales prize, as well as pelicans, terns, gulls, herons, egrets, ducks, and other waterbirds, and provide robust hurricane protection for adjacent inland areas, including New Orleans.
Another proposed project, the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, will build a gated structure into the west bank levee of the Mississippi, a few miles south of the Breton diversion. It will channel a small portion of the river into Barataria Bay, which has lost more than 455,000 square miles of coastal wetlands since 1932.
Together the two diversion projects will cost $2 billion. They will create or maintain as much as 47,000 acres of wetlands and land, and reduce land loss by up to 65 percent. Projects of this scope are achievable due to the huge pot of money Louisiana is slated to receive from the BP oil spill. “This is the first time we will be able to implement such large-scale coastal projects, and really start rebuilding land in Louisiana,” says Audubon Louisiana communications manager Lauren Bourg.
Governor Edwards is pushing to start the diversion projects as soon as possible. In March he sent a letter to President Trump requesting that he expedite the Mid-Breton and Barataria diversions, as well as three other CPRA projects, all of which cut through a federal levee and require special permits. Fast-tracking would make the projects top priorities for regulatory agencies, spurring them to carry out necessary environmental and structural reviews promptly. “With fast-tracking, these projects could take two to three years to get approval,” says Audubon Louisiana deputy director Cynthia Duet. Otherwise they could take many years longer—time Louisiana doesn't have. Trump has yet to respond to the governor's request.
Nor has Trump seemed supportive of America's coastlines. For Louisiana's master plan to succeed, the state will need money beyond the BP-related funding streams. That means counting on annually recurring funding pots, such as state mineral fees, which provide about $25 million a year, and Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) offshore oil revenues that bring in an estimated $176 million per year that Louisiana designates to fund coastal restoration, protection, and infrastructure activities. GOMESA was on the chopping block under the White House's proposed budget for 2018. Many Louisiana legislators vocally opposed the cut; GOMESA was preserved in the House version of the budget, but it's a fight that the Louisiana Congressional delegation will likely face when next year's budget comes up. “Coastal restoration is a top-tier issue in Louisiana,” says Brian Moore, Audubon's vice president of Gulf of Mexico policy. “It's as important as taxes and gun control.”
Architects of the master plan are moving full steam ahead while they have the political support and money. Every barrier island restored and coastal wetland revived provides that much more wildlife habitat, and that much more protection against storms, and makes the commerce and goods and ecosystems and people of the state that much safer.
In late June, tropical storm Cindy started creeping toward the Gulf Coast. Initially it looked as though it might bloom into a full-fledged hurricane and pound Elmer's Island. Erik Johnson was fraught. The newly restored dunes stood only about seven feet above sea level at their highest point; many Least Terns and Wilson's Plovers were nesting lower. “Tropical Storm Cindy is bearing down on Louisiana, and all of the coastal beaches are flooding with storm surge,” Johnson emailed me late on June 21. “Our coastal biologists on Grand Isle and in Cameron Parish, as well as staff at our Rainey Sanctuary, have evacuated because of tornado threats and high water, putting cars and property at risk. . . . Sadly, we're anticipating nearly complete failure of our beach-nesting birds.” Early on June 22, Cindy came ashore near Cameron, Louisiana.
The storm wasn't nearly as devastating as predicted. Maximum sustained winds were 40 mph, barely strong enough to categorize Cindy as a tropical storm, and the storm surge maxed out at four feet high. Still, Elmer's was hit hard. When the techs, Bolinger and Averhart, returned five days later, after the flooding receded, they saw that untold tons of recently added sand had washed into the ocean. Powerful wind and waves had wiped out the electric fencing they'd installed only a month and a half before. Yet the storm didn't completely wipe out the chicks, as Johnson had feared. A quarter of the tern chicks and 67 percent of the young plovers survived. Other sites suffered far worse losses; in some cases, the storm wiped out every youngster. Survival at Elmer's may have been due to the recent restoration: The higher elevation from the new sand may have provided more protection to the birds and their nests.
In the following weeks they watched as Least Terns began nesting anew, later in the season than Johnson has ever witnessed. The plovers were done for the year. But Black Skimmers, which haven't historically nested on the island, began showing up after Cindy. First a handful, then dozens arrived, perhaps because the far-offshore islands they nest on were too flooded to return to. Whatever the case, by late July some three dozen skimmer pairs had scraped out nests on the battered beach, taking a second chance.
Cindy showed the fragility of Louisiana's barrier islands, where an additional foot of sand can make the difference between an island being washed out and retaining some dry ground—which, in turn, can be the difference between life and death for a young bird. Storms will keep coming, and they'll tear away at the land; it's only natural. But if we build more resilience into the system, it will give the coast—and the wildlife and infrastructure it supports—a far better shot at survival. And so the fight for Louisiana's coast continues. It must.