Courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Before-and-after of a restoration project along the Louisiana coastline.

EPA Climate Justice: Restoring the Louisiana Coast to Combat Future Effects of Climate Change

Carey Perry and Hilary Collis, EPA
7/15/14

Imagine living on land that is slowly sinking, while the water that surrounds you is slowly rising. For the 60 to 70 percent of the state’s population that live, work, and play in coastal Louisiana, it is no surprise that the coastal landscape is constantly changing. The most critical of these changes is the severe land loss that has occurred and will continue into the future if restoration actions are not implemented. Every hour we lose a wetland area the size of a football field, and land loss here in coastal Louisiana currently accounts for nearly 90 percent of the total coastal wetland loss in the continental United States.

The red areas have the greatest vulnerability to sea level rise, according to the National Climate Assessment. (Source: National Climate Assessment via EPA)

Along our coast, many of the communities hardest hit by land loss have seen large areas of the coastline erode away. Hard-working people in these coastal communities are uniquely among the least transient population in the country, with most residents able to trace their ancestors in this region back hundreds of years.

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People living along our coast depend on our coastal natural resources for their income, protection, and way of life. They often live in poverty, are often underserved, and are the first to experience the urgent danger of coastal land loss, environmental destruction, and other coastal disasters, both natural and man-made, like hurricanes and oil spills. Many of these issues are directly caused by, or will be made worse by climate change.

However, Louisianans from across the state are fighting to turn the tide on coastal erosion. For the past 14 years, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) has engaged more than 10,000 volunteers across coastal Louisiana who have helped to restore 3,700 acres of coastal habitat while helping to increase the climate resilience of coastal ecosystems and communities.

Wreckage from Hurricane Katrina. Coastal erosion makes destructive hurricanes more frequent and intense. (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

One example can be seen in Grand Isle, located two and half hours south of New Orleans. It’s one of only two beaches in Louisiana where residents and visitors can gain access via car (all other beaches require boat access), and is a favorite vacation spot for Louisianans. While still a great setting for a relaxing vacation, Grand Isle is experiencing the impact of climate change to a greater extent than almost anywhere else in the world. The residents are bracing for sea level rise while the coastal erosion is causing the area to sink. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says Grand Isle has lost 1.32 inches of elevation to the Gulf of Mexico in the past five years alone from coastal erosion—a rate of subsidence (i.e. decline) about four times faster than any other coastline in the lower 48 states, and one of the fastest on the planet.

In recent years CRCL has hosted two restoration efforts on Grand Isle and its neighbor to the west, Grand Terre. More than 325 volunteers from the local community and across the country pitched in to restore 25 acres of dune habitat on these important barrier islands. Volunteers installed over a mile of sand fencing and planted 29,000 plants which help hold existing sand in place and also act as barriers to capture additional sand, form sand dunes, and preserve the islands. These volunteers are embracing the challenges of making our communities resilient by rebuilding wetlands and reshaping attitudes to foster a sense of stewardship and responsibility.

Before and after picture of CRCL restoration work conducted on Grand Terre Island, LA. Left panel, volunteers install sand fence and plant dune grass (April 2014). Right panel, CRCL returned to Grand Terre for a site visit in June 2014 (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

As the sea continues to rise and barrier islands like Grand Isle continue to sink, we as Louisianans not only lose an ideal spot for relaxation, bird watching, and fishing, but we also lose a critical buffer against increasingly devastating tropical storms and hurricanes like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet, the effects of coastal preservation and resiliency planning will be far-reaching. Grand Isle and other islands help to protect Louisiana communities located further inland.

When we successfully rebuild these coastal lands in Louisiana and prevent them from eroding into open water, many coastal communities—like Grand Isle and those just to the north—will be better protected. Rather than forcing out these lower income residents who cannot afford to relocate, climate resiliency provides the hope that we can maintain these communities, these jobs, and the spots for bird watching and relaxation. It means we can fight to maintain our ways of life to pass on to our families for the generations that follow. That’s what climate justice means to us.

Carey Perry is the Science Director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Hilary Collis is the Restoration Program Director for CRCL. More information about the CRCL restoration programming can be found at www.crcl.org. Reprinted with permission from Environmental Justice in Action: Blogging About Efforts to Achieve Environmental Justice in Overburdened Communities, a new blog from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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