The Port of New Orleans wants the city to change the land use for two properties along the Intracoastal Canal so it can develop them. Environmental groups say the wetlands help prevent flooding and act as a backup protection against storm surge. The port says they properties are practically worthless because they lie behind levees and a storm surge barrier. Credit: Gulf Restoration Network

A request by the Port of New Orleans to change the land use for two areas of marshland along the Intracoastal Waterway has sparked a debate about the value of wetlands within the city.

In October, the New Orleans City Planning Commission granted the port’s request to amend the city’s Master Plan, its general framework for how land should be used. It was the first of several steps required before the port can develop the two properties for industrial use.

The properties are mostly out of sight to New Orleans residents, and parts are more suitable for boats than boots. But many say the wetlands are valuable because they store rainwater and guard against hurricane storm surge. They say the city should preserve the area instead of allowing it to be developed.

The port questions that, noting the marshland lies behind two parts of the hurricane protection system.

Flood protection experts come down closer to the environmentalists’ position. But it’s complicated.

It may be hard to figure out the best use for the property because all wetlands are not created equal, said Dana Brown. She’s a consultant for the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which encourages the city to manage stormwater better rather than pump it all out to Lake Pontchartrain.

“There are wetlands, and there are wetlands,” Brown said.

“Wetland areas inside the hurricane protection system need to remain intact and undeveloped.”—2012 Louisiana coastal restoration plan

Developers wanting to fill wetlands protected under the federal Clean Water Act need permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But just because your feet will get wet walking across the port’s properties doesn’t mean they’re protected under that law.

The planning commission’s decision to change the Master Plan must be ratified by the city council. Separately, the planning commission would have to rezone the two properties as industrial.

Rezoning the land could set a dangerous precedent for other environmentally sensitive areas in the city, said Scott Eustis, a coastal wetlands specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network.

“Please keep these over 200 acres of wetlands wet,” Eustis told the planning commission.

“We do not want construction of new hurricane protection systems to encourage unwise development in high-risk areas, as has occurred in the past,” he said, reading from the state’s 2012 blueprint to protect and rebuild the coast. “Wetland areas inside the hurricane protection system need to remain intact and undeveloped.”*

Port wants to develop properties

The properties are located in a triangle-shaped area between eastern New Orleans and Chalmette, on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The first piece of land sits between Almonaster Boulevard and the northern bank of the Intracoastal Waterway, just west of Paris Road.

Under the city’s Master Plan, it’s designated as “planned development,” common for areas the city considers environmentally sensitive. This allows for limited residential, commercial and some industrial uses. Among the restrictions: 60 percent of the land must be open spaces, such as wetlands, recreation trails, playgrounds and parks.

The second piece of land is located on the south side of the Intracoastal. It’s designated as a “natural area,” which allows only development that would cause little or no impact to the land.

Karley Frankic, a planner for the Port of New Orleans, told the planning commission that both properties were recategorized when the city passed the Master Plan in 2010. Before, she said, they were used to store dredged sediment and other material.

The sites in question could be used for any number of purposes, such as a distribution center, a transloading facility, or a packaging facility — but only if the city were to rezone them.

Frankic argued the zoning impedes the port’s ability to carry out its mission to use its properties for commerce, which is protected by the state constitution.

Properties are protected by levees, storm-surge barrier

The port asked the city to change the purpose of the land in January, too. The planning commission rejected it, agreeing with city planners’ concerns about flooding.

This time, city planners said the wetlands are important because they’re part of “redundant stormwater management plans.” Industrial development would hinder flood protection, they said.

Frankic said the wetlands are essentially useless for flood protection because they’re behind levees and the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier. The levees are 10 to 14 feet high in that area. The surge barrier was built to prevent water from being funneled into the city from Lake Borgne, which is what happened in Hurricane Katrina.

If the levees and the storm surge barrier fail in a hurricane, the port’s land “isn’t going to save the city.”—Karley Frankic, Port of New Orleans

“If we want redundancy, we’ve got a storm surge barrier, and a levee district,” Frankic said. If those fail, she said, the port’s land “isn’t going to save the city.”

Donnell Jackson, a spokesman for the port, said it tried to profit off the parcels by selling them to private mitigation banks. That’s a system in which developers buy credits to build wetlands in one place so they can destroy them in another.

There was no interest because the properties are inside the city’s flood protection system, Jackson said.

“We have exhausted the effort to sell or lease the property for this use and it currently has little to no value,” he said. Almost all the land in the city labeled “natural area” is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a private mitigation bank, he said.

Environmentalists say these wetlands are valuable

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service labels most of the 200 acres as wetlands, as well as most of the surrounding areas. That designation is meant to promote conservation of areas with unique biology of land that’s not totally dry nor aquatic.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s protected by state or federal law. Jackson challenged whether the port’s property should even be considered wetlands because it hasn’t been designated as such by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates construction in wetlands.

However, Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the corps, said the agency wouldn’t get involved until it had received a request to fill the properties, and that hasn’t happened.

Environmental groups say developing the wetlands runs counter the state’s 50-year plan to protect wetlands and restore some of what’s already crumbled into the Gulf. The restoration plan says, “Wetland areas inside the hurricane protection system need to remain intact and undeveloped.”

“We can’t afford more water on our levees, in our homes or on our pumping systems.”—Scott Eustis, Gulf Restoration Network

Harvey Stern, who represents the New Orleans chapter of the Sierra Club, told the planning commission the port has offered no “compelling reason” to develop nearly 200 acres of open space, especially when flood protection plans call for “multiple barriers of defense.”

Eustis said the wetlands are valuable precisely because they are inside the city limits.

Even if the wetlands don’t reduce storm surge, he said, they help prevent flooding caused by heavy rainfall. That’s because the wetlands act as a natural sponge, trapping water and releasing it slowly over time.

When the city experiences drainage problems in a heavy thunderstorm, like it did a few times this summer, the wetlands hold it in the area until city pumps can catch up, he said.

“We can’t afford more water on our levees, in our homes or on our pumping systems,” Eustis said.

David Waggoner, an architect and co-author of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, has long urged for planners to retain more water inside the city.

“Having wetland doesn’t prevent subsidence, but getting rid of it can cause it.”—Alex Kolker, Tulane University

Waggoner said the problem has been magnified by development because swaths of concrete and asphalt reduce the ability of rainfall to wet the sponge-like land.

“When we settled here, the land under us was like a sponge that contained a lot of water,” he previously told The Lens. “And what happens to a sponge when you dry it out? It shrinks. That’s what we’ve been doing by fighting water instead of trying to live with it. We’ve been hurting ourselves.”

Alex Kolker, a subsidence expert and Tulane University science professor, said the Port of New Orleans and opponents have valid arguments.

On the one hand, he said, the wetlands in question won’t do much for storm surge protection. But he agreed they provide storage for rainwater. Developing them, he said, would be a “considerable concern.”

“Having wetland doesn’t prevent subsidence, but getting rid of it can cause it,” Kolker said.

Eustis said the biggest problem with developing the land is that it can’t be undone easily.

“You don’t fill wetlands because you can’t fix it,” he said. “Marshes take 10 years for soils to fluff up, to develop that wetland sponge.”

*Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that Scott Eustis was reading from the state’s plan to rebuild the coast. (Nov. 20, 2017)

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...