Louisiana Big Oil Lawsuit Underscores Importance of Wetlands

Flooding in the Bay area
A Bay area resident drives through a flooded parking
lot near the Bothin Marsh in Marin. December 14, 2012.
Photo Credit: Sarah Craig

Wetlands are in the national spotlight after a New Orleans levee authority filed a lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies.  The lawsuit asserts that these companies are partially responsible for the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands that serve as a natural buffer against flooding from hurricanes.

The Louisiana coast was severely impacted by the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010, but even before the spill the marsh was a shadow of its old self.  Oil and gas exploration and development have carved an expansive network of canals and channels into the wetlands, preventing natural sedimentation and allowing for saltwater intrusion.  As a result, the wetland vegetation that has held the coast together for centuries has been dying, allowing the remaining bare soil to literally wash away into the Gulf of Mexico.  Louisiana has lost approximately 1,900 miles of coastal land over the last 100 years and could lose another 700 square miles over the next 50 years if no new restoration takes place.

The levee authority is responsible for the multibillion dollar system of gates, walls, and armored levees that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The authority’s lawsuit asserts that “the increased storm surge risk resulting from the extensive and continuing land loss in southeast Louisiana … has required, and will continue to require, increased flood protection at increasingly high cost.”

Here in the Bay Area, around 187,000 acres of wetlands have been filled in or diked off over the last 150 years.  Even without hurricanes, many Bay area communities are at or below sea level and are already at risk of flooding, a risk that will continue to rise with the sea level (the highest tides each year already flood many Bay Area communities).  Many of the existing levees protecting these communities were built more than 100 years ago and were not engineered to meet federal flood standards.  Wetland restoration is a cost-effective way to help reduce the impacts of sea level rise and protect our communities from flooding.

Two things you can do for our local wetlands today:

1)  Take action to secure federal funding for San Francisco Bay wetland restoration and flood protection.

2)  Volunteer to restore natural wetland habitats by hand at one of our programs around the Bay.