It’s not surprising that a new report says Louisiana may have to cede flood-prone communities to nature, shift the state economy away from fishing and oil refining, and adapt to the inevitability of climate change.
But the recommendations in a 1,500-page report released Wednesday may carry unusual weight because they came from Louisiana’s own state government.
The report is a stark public reckoning that the Pelican State is losing landmass, is suffering repeated disaster-level flooding and will have to reconfigure its economy no matter how many levees are built. It envisions a future of elevated homes and transportation routes, groundwater retention instead of pumping, and ecotourism—a word that appears 26 times in the first section of the report.
“We’re losing land faster than anybody else in the country, probably faster than anybody in the world,” said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, which oversaw the report.
The report says Louisiana could lose 4,120 square miles—nearly 1% of its landmass—over the next 50 years.
“We are going to have to continue adapting. The environment is going to continue changing,” Forbes said.
The report is intended to serve as a national model for adaptation. The Department of Housing and Urban Development funded the $40 million project in 2016 through its National Disaster Resilience Competition, which allocated $1 billion to 13 states and cities, from California to Minot, N.D., to develop responses to climate change.
“There certainly are strategies here in the report that are applicable to other places,” Forbes said.
Gerald Galloway, a leading hydrology expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, praised the report for exploring resolutions other than building and strengthening levees.
“They’re willing to admit there are multiple options and you have to take advantage of all of them,” Galloway said.
The diagnosis of Louisiana’s ills is stark—and the cures are far-reaching.
“Louisiana is in the midst of an existential crisis,” the report says in its introduction. “We must accept that some areas of Louisiana cannot be preserved as is and that some residents will have less land and more water, potentially impacting their livelihoods and communities.”
The report notes that flooding is prompting many residents to leave low-lying communities for higher ground—and that those residents are often more affluent, which leaves behind communities that have less money and more poverty.
“Those who move are often those with the financial means and social networks to do so, while in many cases, lower-income populations—those most vulnerable to severe impacts when disasters occur—remain behind and in locations more prone to significant flood risks,” the report notes.
More than half of Louisiana’s communities lost population between 2010 and 2017 as the state’s overall population grew by 3.3%, according to census figures. From 2000 to 2010—a period that included Hurricane Katrina in 2005—Louisiana had the second-slowest growth of any state behind only Michigan, which lost population.
The report, written by a public-private partnership called Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE), is the latest in a series of studies about the state’s future. But unlike predecessors such as the 2017 Coastal Master Plan, the LA SAFE report emphasizes the limits of engineering solutions such as levees and flood walls.
The Coastal Master Plan focuses on “large-scale engineering projects” that will only “slow land loss and reduce risk,” the report states. “But despite these measures, risk will continue to increase and land will continue to be lost across the region.”
While the report acknowledges that adaptation involves “structural risk reduction systems,” it says that “adaptation must also include a large-scale rethinking of where and how development takes place in the future—and also where and how it does not.”
One of Louisiana’s biggest challenges involves its economy, which relies heavily on coastal industries such as fishing, oil and gas, and ports. All of these industries are being threatened by climate change, and they “should be designed in accordance with greater future flood risk,” the report says.
The report also recommends land use policies “that encourage the transition to an ecotourism-, recreation- and destination-based economy.” Dismantling and repurposing decommissioned offshore oil platforms “can spur growth in new job sectors” and could help Louisiana “lead the nation in creating business opportunities to dismantle and recycle the materials.”
Other recommendations include increasing groundwater retention to guard against subsidence and reduce flooding, and steering development toward “high-ground corridors.”
Forbes, the state community development director, said that Louisiana residents remain deeply rooted to their coastal cultures and economies.
“We will continue to work and live in the coast. And the coast is very much part of our culture,” Forbes said. “One thing we’re learning as we go through all of this is that the most important part of resilience is culture and community cohesiveness.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.