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.

Wonky Wednesday | Wetlands, Barrier Islands, and Oyster Reefs: Buffering the Next Superstorm

Long Island Barrier Island
This image was taken crossing over Fire Island from the Atlantic Ocean and approaching MacArthur Airport, Long Island, NY. Photo: Ken Konrad bluesguy682000@yahoo.com

Less than a day after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie tweeted to his fellow New Jersey residents, “We will rebuild the Shore. It may not be the same, but we will rebuild.” Reality TV icon Snooki and her fellow cast members from “Jersey Shore” followed suit, joining a large fundraising effort to rebuild the boardwalks and amusement parks that define New Jersey’s coastal communities. Christie’s firm pledge and Snooki’s fundraising efforts are evidence of the human capacity to be resilient in the wake of Sandy.

Yet we must look to the causes of the disaster and adapt to the changing conditions of our climate and our rising oceans. Are there places that just don’t make sense for development?

Rewind human history a couple hundred years and we find that the New Jersey shoreline, now filled to the ocean’s edge with beach bungalows, theme parks, and mansions with oceanfront views, was once void of development and rimmed with vast acres of wetlands, strings of small barrier islands, and offshore oyster reefs. These ecological gems are nature’s solution to storm events, protecting the mainland from erosion and flooding.

Wetlands are the lungs of the ocean, absorbing large volumes of water runoff during rainstorms and tidal inflow. Barrier islands act as flexible walls that separate the mainland from the sea, changing shape in response to storms, tides, and winds as they minimize the force of these natural events. Oyster reefs attenuate storm energy, slowing down waves before they hit land. While these ecological barriers have slowly disappeared over the past two centuries due to fill, water pollutants, and large-scale developments, their value has only increased.

In New Jersey, along with so many heavily-urbanized coastal regions – such as the San Francisco Bay Area – the lack of sufficient natural barriers to storm surges is in need of serious attention.  New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state, with 60% of its 8.6 million residents living along its coastline – including more than 236,000 people within 5 feet of the high-tide line. With sea levels expected to rise by 15 inches by 2050, the number of people that are impacted by heavy storms – not to mention large scale disasters like Sandy – will increase exponentially.

Hurricane Sandy is our second loud wake-up call, coming only 7 years after Hurricane Katrina. If we are to survive the future of rising seas and intense storms, our relationship to Mother Nature must change from coercion and command to adaption and flexibility. Preserving and restoring our natural buffers – wetlands, barrier islands, coral reefs and more – is one of the best tools we have available.