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Louisiana unveils update to 50-year, $50 billion plan to restore its eroding coastline

marshes Louisiana Mississippi river Jefferson Parish maybe
Kezia Setyawan
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WWNO
An aerial shot of wetlands in southeast Louisiana.

Officials in Louisiana unveiled the latest version of the state’s 50-year, $50 billion plan to restore its degraded coast and enhance hurricane protection on Friday afternoon, kicking off what will be a months-long approval process.

By law, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority must update its coastal master plan every six years and let the latest science guide each iteration. The 2023 draft plan marks the fourth released by the agency since it formed in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. It released its first master plan two years later in 2007.

“Addressing Louisiana’s land loss crisis and protecting coastal communities requires the comprehensive and integrated approach that projects identified in the master plan offer,” said CPRA Chairman Chip Kline. “No other state in the country has a plan like ours utilizing the best available science and engineering to preserve our coast and culture for generations to come.”

At its core, the Coastal Master Plan relies on computer modeling, academic research and public input to select a suite of projects across south Louisiana to both combat the state’s land loss crisis and lower the risk of property damage from tropical storms. The projects range from building new marsh and natural habitats to constructing levees.

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The master plan acts as a guiding document to prioritize projects based on how much they’ll help communities should the funding become available. Currently, most projects funded under the program are paid for by BP settlement dollars resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, though that money is expected to run out within the next decade.

Similar to past releases, the draft plan emphasizes the stark reality facing Louisiana’s coast over the next 50 years if action isn’t taken. The master plan anticipates at least 1.5 feet of global sea level rise, driven largely by climate change, by 2070. Seas would rise even higher in some areas of the state that are sinking at faster rates.

"It details Louisiana’s risks—and opportunities—using so many different angles and scenarios, and that information is critical to how we think about living and working here today, tomorrow and well into our future," said Simone Maloz, campaign director of the coastal advocacy coalition Restore the Mississippi River Delta.

A so-called future without action means the loss of another 1,100 square miles of land by 2070 and more than two million Louisianians at risk of flooding from storm surge, potentially resulting in upwards of $15 billion in damage each year, according to the 2023 draft plan. That land loss leaps up to 3,000 square miles, more than twice the size of Rhode Island, depending on how quickly global sea levels rise.

But the plan does highlight the progress that has been made in the past 13 years as investment in coastal restoration and protection has steadily increased. For example, nearly all of Louisiana’s barrier islands – the state’s first line of defense against Gulf storms – have been restored, representing just a handful of the more than 140 projects completed since CPRA was created. Since 2005, $21.4 billion has been spent on pursuing these kinds of projects.

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Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
Projections by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority show where continued land loss is expected along the coast over the next five decades as well as where land is maintained or gained as a result of projects selected in its draft 2023 master plan.

The 2023 plan continues the efforts to stave off some of the worst impacts of land loss and climate change, with 73 proposed projects in the works that aimed to lower the threat of storm surge and maintain as much of a natural buffer between communities and the Gulf of Mexico as possible.

Most of those specific projects are for coastal restoration, such as dredging sediment from water bottoms and pumping it elsewhere to create marsh, ridges or other natural features that provide habitat and storm protection. A handful of the projects involve diverting Mississippi River water into nearby bays to reconnect to a natural source of fresh water and sediment. Coastal restoration accounts for half the cost of the plan’s $50 billion aspirations.

In southeast Louisiana, the plan prioritizes billion-dollar, marsh-building projects near New Orleans East and farther south in an area east of Bayou Lafourche near the Caminada Headlands. Each project is expected to create around 30,000 acres of new land.

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Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
An aerial image of one of the five crevasses cut in Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area in Plaquemines Parish in 2020 to restore flowing water and sediment in the area.

The plan also selected 12 projects geared toward constructing or upgrading local regional levee systems, such as the Morganza to the Gulf system in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes or a ring levee proposed around Lafitte. Altogether, they’re expected to cost $14 billion.

If funding is secured and the projects are implemented over time, Louisiana could maintain 310 square miles of land that would otherwise be lost and prevent $11 billion in annual damage, according to the state’s modeling.

In a break from the past, absent from the plan are community-scale projects geared toward flood-proofing buildings, elevating homes or offering voluntary buyouts in areas projected to see more flooding, called “nonstructural projects.” The 2017 version specifically prioritized some parishes or localities for those kinds of projects.

Instead, Stu Brown, who leads CPRA’s strategic planning division, said the plan allocates its final $11.2 billion toward nonstructural projects, a leap by more than $5 billion from the 2017 plan, without selecting where they would go. That’s due to a number of factors, he said, including that CPRA rarely leads those kinds of community projects. Typically, the money for floodproofing, elevations or buyouts funnels through other state or local agencies.

Exclusion from the master plan can also hurt other communities' ability to still apply for grant money to help with those initiatives, Brown said.

“If we were to subject these to our planning process and select a bunch in the plan, we may preclude some of those areas that do have very real needs from having access to funding because their projects are not both consistent with the master plan,” Brown said Wednesday.

If $11.2 billion is spent on nonstructural projects, when combined with 12 levee projects, CPRA projected that the state could avoid $10.7 billion in annual damage.

Construction at The New Isle subdivision in Gray.
Kezia Setyawan/WWNO
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Construction at The New Isle subdivision in Gray.

The plan also didn’t discuss any state-led plans for relocation should it become too risky or dangerous for people to live close to the coast as the water level rises and the land continues to erode. Brown said CPRA won’t take a lead role in coordinating that movement, but the state will provide communities with the information and data needed to make those decisions and apply for money if they choose to embark on those projects, he said.

“We don't expect the state, CPRA or otherwise, is going to be going in and saying, these are communities that need to move,” Brown said. “The information we're producing is really a starting point for those conversations. Ultimately, those decisions really need to be led by the communities themselves.”

Brown said CPRA’s near-term modeling suggests that, within the next 20 years, most of the coast won’t be at risk of flooding that renders an area unlivable. In the plan, the state sets that threshold at areas that would experience 14 feet or more of storm surge during a storm with a 1% chance of happening each year, also nicknamed a 100-year storm.

Nevertheless, residents in some communities have already begun migrating on their own out of some of the riskiest areas closest to the coast. The first community relocation of Isle de Jean Charles residents as a result of coastal erosion is also almost complete.

The release of the plan kicks off a review process that begins by presenting the draft to CPRA’s board, opening up the plan for public comment and gaining the state legislature’s approval.

The plan’s currently set to come before the board on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Story was updated to reflect that the plan will be presented to the CPRA board on Jan. 18, 2023.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.