12th Annual Environmental Conference on Law, Science, and the Public Interest

Report from the Conference

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA

March 9-10, 2007

It took the Mississippi River 6,000 years to build the Louisiana coast. It took man (and natural disasters) 75 years to destroy it. Experts agree we have 10 years to act before the problem is too big to solve.

-Times-Picayune March 4, 2007

New Orleans, with all of its rich culture, is sinking 8 millimeters each year. In Douglas Brinkley’s harrowing account of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging course through the Gulf Coast titled “The Great Deluge”, he comments on the rapidly diminishing southern Louisiana coastline: “We are losing approximately a tennis court size of wetlands every thirteen minutes.” Human impacts have literally resulted in the loss of over 1900 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands between 1930 and 2000.
When I relocated to New Orleans last year, I felt a strong desire to educate myself on the dire wetland situation. I’ve learned that before this city begins constructing more levees, dredging more oil, or even rebuilding what has been destroyed, it will be crucial to focus initially on the nourishment of the forgotten buffer wetlands that protect from storm surges. I was fortunate to attend the 12th Annual Environmental Conference on Law, Science, and the Public Interest at Tulane University’s Law School. I participated in several workshops including:

  • “Wetlands, Levees, and the future of Coastal Louisiana”. A panel discussing new forms of litigation and the current goals of restoring coastal Louisiana with representatives from the Army Corps. of Engineers and environmental lawyers.

  • “Towards a Green New Orleans”. A discussion focused on technologies and possibilities for a green rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina.

  • “Talkin’ Trash: Construction Debris and Recycling Post-Katrina.” A discussion focused on how to improve the debris and waste management problems that have seemed insurmountable since the storm.

  • “Cypress Management, Mulching, and the Emerging State Plan.” A panel investigating the conflict between increased public demands for cypress mulch and the environmental movement to save the cypress trees.

  • “Sewage Treatment and Wetlands Restoration.” A discussion on how treated wastewater in the New Orleans metro area can in the future be used to restore wetlands and cypress swamps.

  • “Environmental Justice: Coastal Louisiana.” An emotionally-charged panel of individuals discussed legal tactics they have taken post-Katrina to enforce the pressing Environmental-Justice agenda.

At one point during the workshops, an emotional testimony was given by a tiny, wrinkled gentlemen, an 80-year old former employee of Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve located in the Mississippi River Delta, one of Louisiana’s lushest areas. He wept for the wetland destruction he has witnessed in his lifetime. “Man has done this. He has destroyed it all. Soon, there will be nothing left.” His simple and haunting message will resonate with me for a long while. Another poignant moment came in a theatrical performance titled “Welcome to Chalmette.” A play that documented the story of more than thirty individual survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the Murphy Oil spill in Chalmette, LA. The play was performed by a Tulane law student cast and written by Mary Nagle, Conference Chair.

I was particularly impressed with one speaker: Paul Harrison, the Coastal Louisiana Project Manager at Environmental Defense, who spoke on the panel for “Wetlands, Levees, and the Future of Coastal Louisiana.” Mr. Harrison posed several tough questions directed at a nervous Army Corps of Engineers representative. He emphasized that the Mississippi delta restoration “must become a national, environmental, and economic priority.” Within the wetlands themselves, localized planting of native flora such as smooth cord grass helps to establish strong root systems in the soil, and thereby reduces erosion. Natural river function can also be restored by managing water flows throughout the wetlands by employing methods such as spillways, hydrological restoration, and sediment trapping. “We must prevent ill-conceived basin-wide levee expansion plans. We must restore natural hydrology by plugging canals and rebuilding historic ridges. We must create beneficial use of dredged material, for sediment is incredibly valuable to this region. The state needs $15-45 billion to begin restoring coastal Louisiana. Now.”

Louisiana is stuck with a lot of legacy balkanization and must dismantle projects that have outlived their time in New Orleans. It is imperative for individuals to hold our government accountable for wetlands loss. The culture and antiquity of this place cannot exist without the precious wetlands and barrier islands that we have abandoned and plundered. Another big storm and New Orleans may as well be a ghost town.

--Sally Pistachio


A Few More Notable Resources on the Wetland Situation:


A few Key Terms (to know when studying this complex issue)

  • LEVEE: an embankment to prevent flooding; a long dam
  • MRGO: the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 66 mile channel that provides a shorter route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans inner harbor. Built in 1989, the channel has grown from 650 feet wide to over 1,500 feet because of erosion.
  • THE ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: The Corps. mission is to provide engineering services to the United States. This agency has utterly failed in New Orleans.
  • WETLANDS: Bayous, marshes, and swamps of Louisiana’s coast.
  • DREDGING: moving earth from the bottom of a river in order to extract oil, or for development
  • BARRIER ISLANDS: Islands that exist off the coast of Louisiana that protect the wetlands against saltwater intrusion and storm surges. These islands also take the brunt of the wave energy from the gulf. These protective land-masses are rapidly disappearing.