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THE NATION

Louisiana Tries to Reclaim Its Ever-Eroding Coastline

The state goes hunting for massive federal aid to launch 'the biggest engineering challenge ever undertaken.'

August 24, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

PECAN ISLAND, La. — For this country town of hackberry forests and hunting lodges, devastation began with a few hungry cows.

Fifty years ago, a farmer decided to let his herd graze on a soggy plot of land he owned in Pecan Island, which is not really an island but a landlocked town resting perilously atop the marshes and bogs of southwest Louisiana. The cows ate the peat that covered the land. Without roots to hold it together, the soil underneath, little more than crushed oyster shells, crumbled. That left a nearby levee unprotected, so a storm wiped that out too.

Water rushed in. The farmer's land became a tiny lake and, quietly, another piece of Louisiana washed away -- just a portion of the 1,900 square miles that have vanished since 1932.

Today, the land is being rebuilt. From a helicopter, a federal government ecologist, John Foret, watched as tractors built the last of 500 mud "terraces" to combat erosion. A $2.9-million project funded by the state and federal governments, it is one of 460 similar projects launched in Louisiana in the last 17 years costing a total of $400 million. And it is not enough.

"This part of the state," said Foret, a project manager, "is dying."

Convinced that those projects are merely buying Louisiana time, officials now have their sights set on the mother lode: They want to unleash the power of the Mississippi River in a final, massive undertaking to save their coast.

If Congress and the public buy Louisiana's pitch that this is a national crisis -- as important to a schoolteacher in Idaho as to an oysterman in Pecan Island -- Louisiana plans to seek $14 billion from taxpayers for a project that could last 30 years.

"Nothing -- the Panama Canal, nothing -- will be as big as this," said Jack C. Caldwell, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. "This will be the biggest engineering challenge ever undertaken."

Though Louisiana has been fighting the problem for more than 70 years along the bulk of its wetland coast, state officials say time is of the essence. A football field's area of land is lost every 38 minutes, according to the Department of Natural Resources, and another 500 square miles of land -- an area larger than the city of Los Angeles -- could be lost in the next 50 years if dramatic steps are not taken.

Already, erosion has exposed submerged pipelines, which have been struck by ships, resulting in oil spills. Entire communities are being swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico, Caldwell said. Louisiana accounts for almost a third of the seafood caught in the lower 48 states -- more than 1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish each year -- and prized fisheries are dying rapidly as marshes are flooded and the delicate balance of saltwater and freshwater is thrown off.

Gov. M.J. "Mike" Foster Jr., a Shreveport, La., native and an avid recreational fisherman, said he frequently uses a global positioning system to navigate the bayous and marshes of southern Louisiana. Though the technology is just a few years old, maps are frequently out of date because the coastline seems to change each day.

"The map says we're on land, and we're in 5 feet of water," Foster said. "When I took office, we knew this was a problem. But I don't think any of us really understood the magnitude of it."

Mud and silt that washed down the Mississippi River over the last 10,000 years or so built up the area that is now southern Louisiana -- the lower quarter of the state, roughly, or most areas south of Interstate 10. Humans have managed to unravel that process in a matter of a century.

Government agencies, particularly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- largely in an effort to spare communities along the Mississippi River from flooding and make navigation easier -- built hundreds of miles of levees and other protective barriers. Much of the river water is funneled into a canal that shoots far into the gulf, depriving Louisiana communities of the silt needed to sustain a fragile coast.

Global warming, which many scientists believe is causing the sea level to rise significantly, has compounded the problem, as have countless smaller operations, from oil drilling to the farmer's decision to let his cows graze on a patch of marsh 50 years ago.

"Nature is just doing its thing," Foret said. "We're not helping."

The most immediate battle is one of public relations.

Awareness of Louisiana's plague pales in comparison to that of other areas that have received extensive attention and federal money, such as Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Everglades. The public sees those issues, the governor said, as "sexier" than Louisiana erosion.

The state and the Army Corps of Engineers are planning to go to Congress next year to lobby for an enormous, long-term allocation of federal money to address the erosion. Officials have begun arming themselves with evidence of the state's plight -- and evidence this is an issue for the nation as well.

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