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The Plan to Save Louisiana’s Coast Is a ‘Moon Shot’

The plan involves moving silt from upstream down into the delta—but no one knows if there’s actually enough

Port Fourchon, a seaport and hub for the petroleum industry on the marshy coast south of New Orleans (Philip Gould/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Saving Louisiana's critical wetland habitatthreatened by the rising seas of climate change and carved away by our quest for oil and gas—is an endeavor of enormous scope. Bob Marshall, in ProPublica's investigation into the expensive and ambitious plan, writes:

Southeastern Louisiana might best be described as a layer cake made of Jell-O, floating in a swirling Jacuzzi of steadily warming, rising water. Scientists and engineers must prevent the Jell-O from melting – while having no access to the Jacuzzi controls.

Louisiana's coastline, as the first part of ProPublica’s series points out, is losing "a football field of land every 48 minutes." The plan to stop that—the Louisiana Coastal Master plan—involves pumping sand in to fill up sinking wetlands and diverting the river to mimic nature’s process of building the delta. It comes with an estimated price tag of $50 billion—just over a third of what was spent on the Apollo program ($146.6 billion) but more than the Manhattan Project ($32.6 billion). 

But more concerning is that researchers aren’t sure if there is enough river sediment to actually rebuild the areas that need it. Dams up and down the Mississippi keep sediment from flowing down river, and improved farming practices have cut back on the sediment load to begin with. And the system is complex enough that it’s difficult to model and predict on computers. ProPublica reports:

Rivers typically build deltas slowly in what looks like a random pattern of constantly shifting channels, islands and sandbars. To the casual observer "it may look like chaos, to a geologist like me it's poetry," said [Paul Kemp, a coastal geologist at Louisiana State University]. 

Marshall compares the whole plan to a "moon shot," based on words from Brigadier General Peter Duke DeLuca, formerly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But he points out that in the quest to put men on the moon, people’s homes and livelihoods were not at stake.​

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