The U.S. homeland is under attack—from the ocean.

Every 30 minutes, the Gulf of Mexico washes away a football field of coastal wetlands from the Mississippi River’s coastal delta in Louisiana. Over the course of a year, about 24 square miles of these brackish wetlands are lost.

If nothing is done, about 700 square miles of wetlands—or an area roughly the size of Delaware—will erode into the Gulf by 2050.

The devastating losses facing coastal Louisiana are one item on a growing list of costly environmental restoration projects—along with the Chesapeake—vying for attention and money from Congress to repair damage caused by humans.

Along the Gulf, the ocean is doing what the ocean has always done—eroding sand.

It’s the river that’s broken.

Lining the Mississippi River with a wall of flood control and navigation levees stopped the river from re-nourishing coastal wetlands with sediment. Now, all the sediment washed off farm fields and carried by the Big Muddy is simply funneled out of the mouth of the Mississippi and off the continental shelf.

Rivers aren’t supposed to work this way.

Until French settlers built America’s first levee, the Mississippi River would change course once every millennia or so. Each time the river sought a new, shorter route to the Gulf, the Mississippi would build a new delta “lobe.”

As old lobes were abandoned, the seaward edges were reworked into barrier islands; the wetlands behind the barrier islands, now deprived of a steady stream of sediment, eventually subsided and slowly submerged.

What’s happening today has happened several times in the last 7,000 years but is different in three respects: the sediment that would naturally replenish the river’s current “lobe” has been cut off; the oil and gas industry has cut 9,500 miles of canals and “key holes” in the marsh; and sea levels are rising by at least 1 centimeter a year.

If people hadn’t decided to live in Louisiana, the solution would be simple: let the Mississippi River change course and create a new delta lobe. But that would be bad news for people living along the Atchafalaya River in western Louisiana. That’s the old channel the Mississippi was trying to reoccupy until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built world’s largest “control” structure to keep 70 percent of the Mississippi flowing past the nation’s busiest port.

Simply put, the river isn’t going to be acting exactly like a river any time soon.

“The natural processes which built and historically maintained coastal Louisiana have been disrupted to the point where this ecosystem is on the verge of collapse,” said Scott Angelle, who heads the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Federal projects have “reduced the sediment load, fixed the river and its distributaries in place, and confined their flows to the channel itself,” Angelle said. “These projects have provided significant benefits to the nation, but have had unintended consequences: accelerating the degradation of the [wetlands] and preventing the development of new sub-delta lobes. The annual floods and periodic river crevasses, which had built and sustained the [wetlands], have been eliminated and most of the Mississippi’s freshwater, with its nutrients and sediment, flows directly into the Gulf.”

What should be done? The loss of the delta wetlands is an emerging environmental catastrophe that makes the problems in the Everglades look like a leaky faucet.

More than 1 million acres of wetlands—or 1,900 square miles—have been lost since 1930. The U.S. Geological Survey predicts that 328,000 to 440,000 acres of additional wetlands—or 500 to 700 square miles—will be lost by 2050 if nothing is done.

That’s bad news for hundreds of species, including 17 endangered and threatened species and commercially important species like shrimp, sea trout, oysters, menhaden and a wide variety of fur-bearing animals.

Louisiana ranks second only to Alaska in the value of seafood catches, annually landing 1.2 billion pounds of seafood worth more $345 million. More than 30,000 commercial fishing jobs depend upon the health of the river’s delta.

The marshes, forested wetlands and other habitats of the Mississippi’s coastal delta provide food and shelter for permanent and seasonal visitors, including 70 percent of North America’s migratory waterfowl. The delta also serves as a sort of landing zone for all of the hungry, exhausted birds migrating from South America.

And yet, the impacts on the environment and those who make their living harvesting the delta’s natural bounty is not the biggest worry facing Louisiana officials.

Louisiana’s coastal wetlands also serve as a natural flood protection system for the nation’s largest collection of oil and gas infrastructure, the city of New Orleans and hundreds of other cities and towns, and the port.

Today, the buffer of wetlands and barrier islands created by the delta intercept and reduce storm surges and hurricanes. As hurricanes barrel toward New Orleans and other population centers, wetlands and barrier islands “break up” the powerful storms. Once the wetlands and barrier islands are gone, hurricanes won’t touch anything until they reach the French Quarter. One expert estimates that the loss of 3 square miles of wetlands increases the storm surge by 1 foot.

Overall, about 2 million people live in harm’s way. Put another way—lots of people will drown in their cars.

As the marshes are lost and the barrier islands erode, oil and gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure that populate the swamp like strange, steel herons will be exposed to more wind and wave action than they were designed to withstand. Pipelines that are now buried would be exposed and burst.

Some of the nation’s most important oil and gas facilities are protected by the wetlands, including two of the four major storage facilities of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which serves as the central unloading and distribution point for all incoming supertankers to the Gulf region.

“As the buffer zone [of wetlands] disappears, the coastal zone and everything in it becomes more susceptible to storm damage and flooding from ever-smaller and less severe storms and hurricanes,” said Ed Landgraf, who works for Shell Pipeline Company.

If the wetlands continue to erode, he said, refineries, terminals, pipelines and oil and gas wells would be closed for long periods. “Depending upon the severity of the storm damages, it is not inconceivable that it could take months or years to bring some of the facilities back on line,” Landgraf said. “In the long-term, the costs of inaction are much greater than the costs of preserving and protecting” the wetlands.

No one knows the precise cost of “preserving and protecting” the wetlands—much less how much it would cost to restore what has been lost since 1930, or whether it makes sense to restore 1 million acres of wetlands. After all, deltas come and go. This one, though, is just going.

Once state officials recognized the severity of the problem in the 1980s, they began to clamp down on the destruction of wetlands and to pay for some restoration. The federal government began to spend $50 million a year on restoration in 1990, and built two large diversion projects during the 1990s.

But, these piecemeal efforts were abandoned in 1998 when local interests produced a landmark report calling for, in Angelle’s words, “comprehensive, ecosystem-level coastal restoration.”

The results thus far, have been less than comprehensive. State and federal officials have proposed a series of ambitious freshwater and sediment diversion projects that would effectively poke holes in the levees and permit some of the river’s water and sediment to spread to restore and replenish the marshes. Simply allowing some freshwater into the muck that once supported marsh grass is often enough to “fertilize” the seeds that have laid dominant in the mud—something officials learned when they built a diversion south of New Orleans.

A draft plan released by the Corps of Engineers and Louisiana this summer calls for the immediate construction of three more diversion projects and the restoration of some barrier islands. The 10-year, $1.9 billion plan also calls for the creation of a demonstration program and a science and technology program to resolve some lingering scientific and engineering questions.

The Corps and the state characterized the plan as a first step—partly because of sticker shock within the Bush administration.

But, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee only authorized one of the diversion projects—and provided less funding for demonstration projects and science—when it approved a massive $8 billion water projects bill.

Louisiana is willing to pay its share, Angelle said. After all, the state has primarily financed the studies that have been completed so far.
But, he said, most of the benefits of the flood control and navigation projects that have created the problem accrue outside Louisiana—such as flood protection upstream. And, the whole nation will suffer if a hurricane shuts down energy facilities that provide 30 percent of nation’s oil and gas supply.

“Without bold, decisive action, Louisiana as we now know it—geographically, ecologically, culturally and economically—may cease to exist in the next 50 years,” said Mark Davis, Executive Director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

“The resulting loss would be incalculable and would be compounded by the fact that it did not have to be. If the unthinkable should occur, it would not be because we were overtaken by events, but because we did not rise to the challenge when there was still time.”

Precisely what happens after the Corps and the state builds a handful of “early action projects” remains a mystery, in part, because the Corps has delayed studies of even larger diversions that hold the potential for much more significant amounts of restoration.

One study would look at whether pipelines could be used to move sediment from the Mississippi into the northern reaches of Barataria Bay and Terre Bonne Bay—the two major delta bays that would become increasingly salty if the wetlands and barriers islands vanish.

Other studies would look at whether more water and sediment could be diverted down the river’s two major distributaries—Bayou LaFourche and the Atchafalaya River—and again diverted to the east and west to restore marshes. A fourth study would look at ways to restore the mouth of the Mississippi —including relocating the mouth altogether.

The bill passed by a Senate committee last month did require the Corps to complete by 2008 a “comprehensive” restoration plan for the river’s coastal delta. But, the provision did not require that the four critical studies—which will cost about $60 million—be completed by that deadline.

The committee also cut funding for demonstration projects that would figure out, among other things, whether pipelines and conveyance canals could be used to move sediment over great distances.

State officials, environmental groups, and oil and gas interests were shocked when the Senate committee provided less than $400 million for coastal wetland restoration. Meanwhile, the same bill provided $1.7 billion for a lock replacement project on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers that two panels of the National Academy of Sciences have called premature.

At a recent public hearing in Louisiana, many witnesses for the first time spoke openly of feeling abandoned by the federal government and of the need to consider a massive relocation of homes, businesses and critical infrastructure.

“There is still time to act, but that time is running frighteningly short,” Davis said. “There will always be an element of uncertainty; we will always know more five or 10 years from now than we do today. But just like a cancer patient who hopes that a miracle will be developed soon but who cannot wait to begin treatment, our coast does not have the luxury of time. If anything, we have waited too long.”