November 9, 2005

Panel: Plan for Restoring Gulf Wetlands Lacking

WASHINGTON -- The Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Louisiana lack an overall plan for restoring coastal wetlands, a National Academy of Sciences panel said Wednesday.

"Federal, state and local officials, with the public's involvement, need to take a broader look," said Robert Dean, a University of Florida engineering professor in Gainesville who chaired a panel on the restoration efforts.

Dean said those efforts must examine "where land in coastal Louisiana should and can be restored and ... how some of the sediment-rich water of the Mississippi River should flow to achieve that."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed about 100 square miles of environmentally significant marshes in southeastern Louisiana, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That includes about 60 square miles of marsh torn up and submerged around New Orleans.

Before the storms, Louisiana had lost about 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands since the 1930s. Natural causes, oil and natural gas drilling, and dams, levees and other artificial barriers in the Mississippi River have deprived the river's delta of land-forming sediment.

Federal geologists had previously estimated the coastal wetlands, which harbor fish and protect against potential storm surges, would lose about 650 square miles of marsh by 2050.

In contrast to the Geological Survey's findings, the National Academy's panel said that it's too early to gauge accurately how much wetlands loss in Louisiana is directly due to damage from Katrina and Rita.

Louisiana's Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, asked the academy to review projects managed by the Army Corps on the state's coast after the White House Office of Management and Budget directed the Army Corps to focus on projects easily attainable on a short-term basis.

Because of that intervention, the Army Corps limited itself to projects that are starting in the next five to 10 years. The Army Corps estimated those projects would only reduce the loss of coastal wetlands by about 20 percent a year.

Academy scientists said they agreed with plans for most of the individual restoration projects, but some promising ones were overlooked because they were longer in scope.

They criticized a $100 million proposal to build an embankment by the river's outlet, saying that would only reduce land loss by about one-fifth of a square mile each year.