Restoring Wetlands to Save the Gulf

According to Places, Louisiana State University’s interdisciplinary Coastal Sustainability Studio has been exploring the post-Katrina landscape of Louisiana and the Gulf South. The group has found that New Orleans and other local communities won’t be safe from future storms and flooding until the delta is allowed to function, natural soils are allowed to build up, and the region’s extensive wetland ecosystem is restored and integrated into local communities.  The trick will be getting the powerful economic interests (shipping and industrial firms that depend on the artificially-hardened, deepend waterways) and local communities to buy into the natural protections that are needed. 

Elizabeth Mossop, ASLA, Director of the Landscape Architecture Department, Louisiana State University, and Jeffrey Carney, manager of the Coastal Sustainability Studio, have found that “without massive land-building efforts, the coastal region will disappear” by 2100. The goal of their studio is to come up with more natural development plans for a region facing rising continual severe storms and rising sea levels. However, any solution for future development must also take into account the “natural flux of the Mississippi River,” which is the result of “the geophysical forces of the Delta,” a history of large-scale civil and environmental engineering projects, and the local culture. 

Mossop and Carney say a history of resource extraction, expansion, shipping, urban development, and flood protection schemes in the region have contribute to the current problems in the region: “Today it is unmistakably clear that the results of human intervention — dramatically escalating land loss and rapid wetland destruction are only the most visible signs — are imperiling the future of Louisiana. The amplification of the impacts of these interventions has brought us to this moment in the early 21st century when, following a series of disastrous storms, the engineered landscape of coastal Louisiana has reached its breaking point.”

New Orleans has borne the brunt of misguided interventions in the natural landscape. “Again, it is human activity — the constraining of the delta with levees, the petrochemical industry’s fragmentation of coastal landscapes, and the inappropriate location of urban development — that has accelerated the loss of protective wetlands and barrier islands and created the catastrophic situation we face today. Many communities are highly vulnerable to the potential damages of future flooding and storms.”

The Coastal Sustainability Studio calls for a new approach to development in the region that is rooted in current realities. This means understanding the reality of the region’s environment, and that future severe storms and sea level rise are a given. Also, the local communities present another type of reality — there are a set of political and economic conditions on the ground that need to be considered.

The studio thinks the Mississippi River should return to its early role as a “delta builder.” Given it’s impossible to return to the early untouched landscape, coastal scientists, engineers, and designers will need to focus on how to mitigate the impact of the growth of communities, industries and shipping along the river.  A series of “spillways” could be constructed along strategic points in the gulf, which can be opened to allow in sediment. The sediment can “build up, maintain, and protect large expanses of land.” There could then be an additional set of “five diversions,” which would operate at the endpoints of delta basins. Each diversion would be a combo of “hard” and “soft infrastructure (see earlier post). “Our goal is to make the river once again flexible and powerful, with the resulting land-river dynamics working in harmony with existing and future delta communities.” 

Local communities, they argue, can adjust to a new, fluctuating, fertile landscape that is more connected to the river.” The neighborhood as we know it will have to evolve — to become better integrated with natural systems and flexible to changing water levels. Its architecture will have to become nimble, and increased open space will be needed to absorb seasonal floodwaters.” In New Orleans, Mossop and Carney call for the Lower Ninth Ward to return to its earlier wetland state, providing a flexible protective middle zone. “To do this, we propose restoring the Central Wetlands Unit — the 30,000 acres of cypress forest that once protected the Lower Ninth from hurricanes.”

Read the article

Also, check out an interview with Yale ecologist Os Schmitz, who has also argued for the return of wetlands to the region. He also says recent research proves that most ecosystems can be restored or recreated.

Image credit: New Orleans Wetland Protection System / LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio

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