Published: April 23, 2006
While Trent Lott is doing cartwheels to glue tourism projects to the emergency spending bill, there is a Katrina-related project that really does deserve to be added to the legislation. It involves restoring coastal wetlands and barrier islands.
Wetlands restoration has been pushed to the bottom of a very long post-hurricane priority list. That may not be surprising, but it is a big mistake. The future of the region's habitability is tied to the health of its wetlands. Long before there were levees to hold back the floodwaters, there were wetlands acting as a buffer. This giant sponge can absorb the brunt of a hurricane; shrinking the sponge leaves that much more power in storms to wreak havoc.
Much of the wetlands-shrinking is due to a long line of bad decisions before the hurricane. Since the 1930's, Louisiana has lost wetlands equal to the size of Delaware. The Army Corps of Engineers built dams, levees and canals along the Mississippi River that held back or diverted much of the sediment that had naturally replenished the delta soil. Channels dug for shipping have allowed salt water to infiltrate and kill off vegetation. In effect, our tinkering starved the wetlands and barrier islands.
That makes it all the more important to seize this moment, when the whole country's attention is focused on making southern Louisiana more secure, and begin to undo the damage. The $100 million on the table now is small change for small projects. It would pay to begin diverting water back to the marshes. The corps also needs to close one of the worst canals, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, to navigation so it can carry fresh water and replenishing silt to the wetlands.
Wetlands protection isn't pork, and it certainly isn't starry-eyed environmentalism. It would correct a flawed approach to public works that stripped the coastline and endangered those living beyond it. Louisiana cannot rebuild just for the sake of rebuilding while the ground underneath disappears.