washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Inside the A Section > Opinion Columns

Saving America's Wetland

By Kathleen Babineaux Blanco
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page A31

My state dodged a massive natural disaster in September when Hurricane Ivan, which seemed on course to hit New Orleans, veered away at the last minute. The near miss was a dramatic reminder that we continue to face the possibility of a man-made catastrophe.

Had Ivan hit New Orleans, the toll in lives lost and property destroyed would have rivaled anything in recent U.S. history. With barrier islands and thousands of square miles of marsh lost to erosion, there was little left to buffer Ivan's winds and waves. Even with the massive evacuation, thousands could have died in the storm surge, trapped in a city that is largely below sea level.

Some of ohe oldest examples of lines of fortification of the War of 1812, such as Fort Pike are crumbling and washing away as Louisiana's coastline erodes at a rate of about 25 square miles a year. (AP)

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

No government has the power to stop -- or turn -- even a small hurricane. But in Louisiana's case, government does have the power to reverse federal policies that have led to the loss of our coastline. This coast protects many towns and cities, and it plays an important role in the nation's economy.

Ivan destroyed some of our few remaining barrier islands. But even without a hurricane's ravages, much of our state is washing away day by day, posing a threat to our lives and to the nation's economy. And, of course, it is not just Louisiana's problem; it is a national problem requiring a national solution. This is America's Wetland.

Louisiana's coast is the nursery to the Gulf of Mexico's thriving marine fisheries. Equally important, a major segment of the country's oil and gas industry is based on this threatened ground. About $100 billion of energy infrastructure, including critical oil reserves, is linked to the coast of Louisiana. Cities and ports in south Louisiana support and supply the rigs working the gulf's massive oil and gas fields. Ivan reminded us what this offshore production means to the nation: Even the short interruption of supply caused by the hurricane forced a spike in already-high oil prices.

These wetlands protect thousands of miles of pipelines carrying oil and gas from offshore rigs along with interstate pipelines supplying consumers of every stripe and size across the nation. Allowing the erosion to continue would first constrict, then strangle, this flow of energy to homes, cars and businesses.

The picture is bleak, but not hopeless. The roots of the erosion problem lie in the unintended consequences of federal efforts to provide for the nation's needs. High, strong levees were built to keep commerce flowing on the Mississippi River and to protect residents in its broad, rich valley from floods. Navigation canals were cut through marsh and swamp to allow development of oil and gas reserves. Unfortunately, levees kept silt-laden floods from replenishing the land, and canals channeled damaging saltwater into fragile freshwater marshes.

We've closed some abandoned navigation canals to blunt saltwater intrusion. We're planting new vegetation -- sprout by sprout -- to strengthen barrier islands and marshes. We're using rock dikes and soil from dredging operations to protect and expand the few remaining barrier islands.

Other measures are more complicated, and expensive. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, we've built two freshwater diversion projects on the Mississippi River levee downstream from New Orleans. These structures divert silt-laden river water into wetlands that need the fresh water that nourishes marsh grasses and the sediment that replenishes the land.

We know that mimicking the river's natural hydrology is a delicate balancing act, but the more we learn, the better we perform. Two projects diverting river water into the marshes are only a start; we continue research and testing to find the best methods and apply new technologies to stem the erosion.

Over the past 14 years, we've learned to work with a network of five federal agencies, from the Corps of Engineers to the Commerce Department's National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. We know that the past approach of a project here and an effort there will not work. Only a comprehensive effort across all our diverse coastline will succeed.

More federal help is needed. Louisiana asked for $1.2 billion in the pending Water Resources Development Act to begin coastal protection. Unfortunately, this federal funding is tied up in the U.S. Senate. But even if the act passes with money for Louisiana intact, it's only an authorization. The source of real money to help stop the loss of America's Wetland lies offshore. Securing our fair share of federal proceeds from oil and gas produced on the outer continental shelf off the Louisiana coast would provide a continuing and dependable investment in projects to help stem the ongoing loss.

Oil and gas production off Louisiana's coast pumps an average of $5 billion into the federal treasury. Dedicating just a fraction of the federal revenue from Louisiana offshore production could stop the loss of this regional wetland. This is a potential national disaster that need not happen.

The writer, a Democrat, is governor of Louisiana.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company