Is it sunrise or sunset for the Louisiana oyster industry? Much depends on the CPRA. Photo provided by Oyster Fisheries, Inc., via the author.

Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is missing the greatest opportunity in the state’s Coastal Zone, namely combining storm and flood protection with the expansion of renewable, fauna- and flora-based, Coastal Zone industries. The focus on building wetlands is a major constraint to the CPRA’s political and technical success in the Coastal Zone. 

Organizations wishing to build dry land in the Coastal Zone are legally required to remediate by building an equal amount of wetlands elsewhere. This can be a discouraging extra cost to the building of dry land — dry land that would also serve the state as hurricane protection. 

Dry land — islands, levees, river ridges, terraces, bulkheads, etc. — is the most effective and accepted form of storm protection. People need the security of dry land to invest in the Coastal Zone. Dry land that serves not only as storm protection but also defines salinity-specific habitat for oysters, crabs, finfish, ducks, and other coastal species is even more valuable than wetland because such dry land will serve multiple purposes.

The CPRA’s current plans to use large-scale diversions of Mississippi River water to build wetlands will make oyster production impossible in most of the traditional oyster production areas, especially in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. The CPRA’s plans have divided people into pro-diversion and anti-diversion groups.

On the anti-diversion side are the parish councils of Plaquemines and St. Bernard, who have issued ordinances and resolutions forbidding the use of diversions in their Parishes. And the Louisiana Oyster Task Force has condemned the use of large-scale diversions by resolution and letters to the CPRA and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

On the pro-diversion side are environmental NGOs (Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, National Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation) who, while acknowledging that the large-scale diversions will disrupt the ecology of the Coastal Zone, support the CPRA focus on building wetlands with large-scale, freshwater diversions.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has noted, “The [CPRA’s] proposal would result in the destruction or alteration of 7,530 acres of [essential fishery habitat] utilized by various life stages of red drum and penaeid shrimp.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. By leading the refocus on building dry land, the CPRA could unite environmentalists and seafood producers, provide quickly-built, lasting storm protection, and provide dedicated areas for doubling Louisiana’s average annual oyster landings — within ten years. 

The CPRA focus on building wetlands is an underlying cause of the diversion debate. It’s partially due to a judicial decision to restrict BP oil-spill funds to building either wetlands or barrier islands. There is BP money from this $4 billion settlement for diversions to build wetlands, but no money to build dry land storm barriers other than offshore barrier islands.

The focus on wetlands is also partially due to the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA). Again, the objective of this source of funding is to build wetlands (not dry lands) and is not aligned with the state’s priority for the most effective hurricane protection.

The Act creating the CPRA stated, “It is the intention of the legislature that comprehensive integrated coastal protection be elevated to a position within state government of high visibility and action and that hurricane protection, storm damage reduction, flood control, and conservation and restoration of the coastal area be of high priority within that structure.” Note that hurricane protection is mentioned first, followed by conservation, then restoration.

For nearly 300 years, the people of Louisiana have built dry land (levees) for hurricane and flood protection. Generally, they have not built wetlands for storm protection in preference to levees. It seems reasonable to me that the state legislature, in forming the CPRA, intended the focus to be on dry lands rather than wetlands.

There’s also the notion that wetlands provide practical storm surge protection. “It is estimated that every 2.7 miles of wetlands reduces a storm surge by one foot,” reads a paper by staff at Southeastern Louisiana University. However, the storm protection provided by purpose-built wetlands is impractical for a couple of reasons.

First, it is difficult to place wetlands so that they are properly aligned to take the full force of a storm. Storms come in from unpredictable directions.

Second, the size or amount of wetland needed for adequate protection will likely require more space than is available. A purpose-built storm-surge-dampening wetland would have to have significant width to be effective against storms that attack from various unforeseen angles.

A USGS map of the Breton Sound Basin, provided by the author,

As an example of the impracticality, consider this illustration. The Breton Sound Basin is about 20 miles wide and 53 miles long. If it takes 2.7 miles of wetland to reduce storm surge height by a foot then, to dampen a 12-foot storm surge coming straight up the center axis of the basin, the wetland would have to be 32 miles long. Such a wetland area would occupy the northernmost 60 percent of the Breton Sound.  

Additionally, hurricanes can convert many square miles of wetlands to open water in a relatively short period of time, erasing much of the work gone into building storm protection wetlands. For example, while the CPRA plans to build or maintain 800 square miles of wetlands over the next 50 years, it also noted in its 2017 Master Plan that “From 2004 through 2008 alone, more than 300 square miles of marshland were lost to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that in 2005, Katrina and Rita destroyed 217 square miles of coastal land. In one year, hurricanes have destroyed wetlands amounting to 25 percent of the wetlands expected to be built by the CPRA in 50 years. With the increase in storm intensity and frequency that is expected to result from global warming, spending a significant portion of our CPRA funds building wetlands for hurricane protection seems excessively risky.

Not only major storms but also normal weather can destroy wetlands. Researchers from Tulane University, Coastal Carolina University, and The Water Institute of the Gulf found that, unless wetlands are protected from wind- and wave-induced erosion, only 5 percent to 35 percent of the delivered sediment will remain in place to form storm surge protection structure.

The focus on wetlands may also be attributed in part to the 1989 “No Net Loss” policy, which stated the federal government’s intent that losses of wetlands would be offset by at least as many gains of wetlands. This national policy should be updated and modified to better serve Louisiana where local conditions argue for a policy to encourage some conversion of open water and wetland to dry land. 

As currently implemented, the policy is a constraint to construction of effective storm protection and to economic development in the Coastal Zone. Perhaps it is time to change the “No Net Loss” policy to encourage conversion of open water and wetland to dry land in locations where dry land storm protection is needed.

A FEMA-SPOT satellite image from Sept 2, 2005, showing how the Lakefront (green area at top) became an island. The image is from Turning Water Into Land: How New Orleans Created the Lakefront Neighborhoods, 1926-1934, Richard Campanella.

Remember that the New Orleans Lakeshore Airport and several lakefront subdivisions were built on wetlands during an era before No Net Loss. This land now serves as hurricane/flood protection and investment. Much of that land did not flood during Katrina. Note also that wetlands can be created from submerged lands in the Coastal Zone by first protecting the area from wind/wave erosion using a ring levee and then pumping in dredged fill material. The private sector should be encouraged to do this as it will result in wetlands, dry lands, and enhanced storm protection.

Given what we now know about the fragility of wetlands and the disruptive impacts of fresh river water, CPRA should adhere to its mandate to adapt the Master Plan to new knowledge and refocus its planning on building dry land (levees, islands, etc.):

  • to create quickly built, long-lasting hurricane protection,
  • to build land for economic development and hurricane protection,
  • to protect fresh- and brackish-water wetlands,
  • to optimize water flows and salinity for maximum wildlife and fisheries production,
  • to incentivize local governments, private- and NGO-organizations to build storm surge barriers to protect coastal zone investments in flora- and fauna-based businesses AND enhance storm protection.

The CPRA restoration of Queen Bess Island is an apt model for conservation of the coastal zone. CPRA used dredged sediment to build-up the interior of the island and protected the newly placed sediment from erosion by building a sediment protection and containment wall around the vulnerable parts of the island. The sediment was dredged from a nearby borrow area and transported to the project site by barge. Disruption of the ecology surrounding the island by river water and construction time were minimized by use of dredged material rather than diversion-water-carried-material.

This is the model used by the Dutch to protect their lowland areas from storms while simultaneously recovering valuable farmland from their inland sea. You can see “How The Dutch Dug Up Their Country From The Sea” on YouTube.

Retired Brigadier General Duke DeLuca of the U.S. Corps of Engineers (USACE) suggests that the Corps could contribute to this levee-and-dredge-based model by providing dredge material from the USACE’s Mississippi River maintenance operations to land-building projects near the River—not only from its dredging operations at the mouth of the river but from operations much further upriver.

So, what is keeping the CPRA from leading this shift from wetlands to dry lands — from relief projects to public/private/partnership funded projects? Certainly, some of the assumptions and policies from the past are involved. Perhaps the CPRA feels it needs specific authority from the state legislature to bring detailed plans for the development of our flora- and fauna-based renewable resources and industries into the Master Plan?

The best way to get that permission is to support a Concurrent Resolution to be passed by the Legislature this session. Please consider supporting, and urging your legislators to support, my draft resolution, which you can read below.



To request the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority include plans for protecting and restoring the ecological bases for flora- and fauna-based industries in the Coastal Master Plan.

               WHEREAS, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is charged with the protection and restoration of the coastal zone; and

               WHEREAS, the coastal zone supports important industries based on wildlife and agricultural resources, including those based on birds, crabs, finfish, oysters, crawfish, alligators, shrimp, domesticated animals, and several plant species; and

               WHEREAS, the viability and variety of coastal flora and fauna is dependent on species-specific water salinity ranges; and

               WHEREAS, a major determinant of the ecological character of the coastal zone is the pattern of water salinity in the coastal zone, going from fresh to brackish to salt; and

               WHEREAS, the pattern of salinity will be managed by the operation of water control structures designed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and included in the Coastal Master Plan; and

            WHEREAS, the water control structures (islands, levees, terraces, bulkheads, dry land, etc.) designed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority could combine ecological protection, restoration, and development with storm and flood protection.

               THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Senate and House of the Louisiana Legislature request that the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority add to the Coastal Master Plan specific plans for the protection and restoration of the ecological bases for the major wildlife- and agriculture-based industries of the coastal zone, including those industries based on birds, crabs, finfish, oysters, crawfish, alligators, shrimp, domesticated animals, and several plant species.

               BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the fore mentioned plans include objectives for target species production levels, areas of production, and management of water salinity for optimum target species production.        

I believe we should ask our state senators and representatives to pass such a concurrent resolution this session. I believe it will refocus CPRA on combining storm protection with the development of our renewable natural resources.

John Dale “Zach” Lea (BS Zoology-LSU. MS Ag. Econ./ Fishery Policy-LSU, Ph.D. Fishery Policy-Univ. of Florida) is an environmental policy consultant, has worked in the oyster industry in Louisiana and Mississippi and has retired from a career in international agricultural project management, having worked extensively in in Haiti, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He can be reached at

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