The rock dam built across the MRGO in 2008 to block storm surge. (Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) Credit: Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The last hurricane season has made one thing very clear: We need to restore the coast that protects us. Louisiana experienced a truly devastating season, with an historic five landfalls leaving a trail of devastation from Cameron to Chalmette. Our coast is essential to protecting communities, especially here in the Greater New Orleans region. 

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, MRGO, is a 76-mile-long federal shipping channel that was constructed in the 1960s. It impacted over a million acres of coastal habitat, destroying tens of thousands of acres of protective wetlands. When Hurricane Katrina hit, communities along the MRGO realized their worst fears. Deadly storm surge caused numerous levee breaches. Catastrophic flooding claimed the lives of hundreds of people in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward. The environmental, economic and social destruction of Greater New Orleans compelled Congress to close the channel. 

After Hurricane Katrina, there were widespread calls for restoration of the MRGO ecosystem, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District office receiving more than 70,000 public comments, breaking the record. In 2009, a rock dam was built to close MRGO in St. Bernard Parish, a first step in the ecosystem’s restoration. The closure of the navigational channel has benefited more square miles of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems than any other restoration and recovery project implemented since the devastating hurricane. As a result, the hydrology of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, from Biloxi Marsh to the Maurepas Swamp north of Lake Pontchartrain, is being restored. 

In the decade since the MRGO closure, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin has seen a reduction in salinity levels. They are closer to the historical conditions that existed before the channel was constructed. Baldcypress trees now flourish on a protective landbridge, a place where they could not have survived ten years ago. Oysters are reestablishing their historic reefs. The positive impacts of the channel’s closure are undeniable. 

This progress brings hope for a vibrant and resilient coastal Louisiana and our future. It’s an example of how resilient our coastal ecosystem can be if we give nature the freedom to recover. But the work is far from done. We must commit to build upon this progress with deliberate and continued investments in restoration.  

This is why calls to alter the dam should give us pause. Lowering the rock dam would allow destructive saltwater to infiltrate the restoring ecosystems and undo the enormous strides that have been made. It would also put our most vulnerable communities at risk, again. No actions affecting the rock dam should be taken without a rigorous, independent, scientific review of the potential effects. 

As a result of extensive research and advocacy by the MRGO Must Go Coalition — a group of 17 local and national environmental, social justice and community organizations — we more fully understand the influence of the MRGO. We recognize the importance of its closure and must remain focused on moving forward with restoration efforts that will better protect us from future storms and sea level rise. 

Over $1 billion was recommended for restoration and recovery following Hurricane Katrina. However, the funding has not been allocated for the Corps’ MRGO ecosystem restoration plan, in spite of Congress’ initial call for action. So far, the projects that have been completed are piecemeal and do not compare to the need. Until Congress and the White House prioritize the restoration and recovery that was mandated, our communities will continue to bear the burden of the MRGO. Generations of families in the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish are still recovering from losses associated with the MRGO. Implementing this vital restoration will protect these communities from future storms and help in the ongoing economic recovery of our region.

We must not forget the lessons learned from the MRGO disaster. Let’s continue to raise our voices, calling on Congress to act swiftly and deliberately by prioritizing infrastructure funding for scientifically supported projects that ensure environmental justice. Our future depends on it. 

Amanda Moore is the Deputy Director for the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Program, Co-Chair of the MRGO Must Go Coalition, and co-author of “MRGO: The Road to Recovery: Assessing Closure Impacts, Restoration Needs and Community Recovery.”

Arthur J. Johnson is the Chief Executive Officer of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED).