May 29, 2019

Time to Wake Up: Louisiana Road Trip

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Mdm. President, I am grateful to be joined on the floor today by the senior Senator from Louisiana.  I had the pleasure of visiting his home state last month to see firsthand how a combination of decreased sedimentation, erosion, subsidence, habitat degradation, and rising seas are threatening Louisiana’s coastline.  I was also joined by Congressman Garret Graves, former Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman, during my time in Louisiana.  I thank him for sharing his time and expertise of Louisiana’s coastal issues with me. 

Though the junior Senator from Louisiana was unable to join me while I was in his state, I have enjoyed working with him on other coastal resiliency efforts and look forward to continuing that work.

Like Rhode Island, Louisiana’s coast drives the state’s economy and has shaped the state’s history and culture.  Coastal Louisiana is home to around 2 million people and is responsible for over a quarter of the continental U.S.’s fisheries landings.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Louisiana’s wetlands today represent about 40 percent of the wetlands of the continental United States, but about 80 percent of the losses.” 

Coastal wetlands are critical habitat and nurseries for commercially important fisheries species and other wildlife.  They also improve coastal water quality and serve as a buffer to coastal communities from storm surge, flooding, and other storm effects. 

Across the United States, we have lost around half of our original wetlands in the past 200 years.  That is significant, but the scale and speed of wetland loss in coastal Louisiana is almost impossible to comprehend.  From 1932 to 2010, the state lost nearly 1,900 square miles, or 25%, of its coastal land.  Between 1985 and 2010, the state lost about a football field worth of land every hour.  Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike caused the loss of more than 300 square miles of wetlands. 

I saw firsthand what Louisiana’s shredded coastline looks like from the air.  The Mississippi River is one of the most heavily managed rivers in the world.  A combination of flood prevention and irrigation interventions upriver have cutoff the tap of sediment that used to flow naturally to Louisiana to replenish its wetlands.  Now, erosion outpaces rebuilding.  Though erosion is a natural phenomenon, oil and gas development exacerbates the problem.  The dredged tracks left in the marsh where exploration and pipelines traverse accelerate erosion. 

Strong storms, ratcheting up in strength on warmer ocean waters thanks to climate change, also take a heavy toll on the vulnerable marshes. 

On top of sediment loss, the Louisiana coastline is also sinking at around a third of an inch each year due to subsidence, the natural movement of the Earth’s surface.  Oil and gas development likely accelerates this process too. 

Then there’s sea level rise.  Louisiana’s Coastal Planning and Restoration Authority estimates as much as 2.7 feet of sea level rise by 2050. 

Tulane University researchers concluded current sea level rise estimates for Louisiana are probably too conservative, as the tide gauges used to track sea level rise do not accurately account for the fact that coastal marshes are sinking at the same time.  Current sea level rise projections for Louisiana have ignored the simultaneous sinking of the coast, meaning Louisiana should experience even more relative sea level rise than the already troubling predictions suggest.  

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana undertook the daunting task of assembling a Coastal Master Plan.  The 50-year, $50 billion plan identifies 124 projects aimed at maintaining 800 square miles of land over that time.  Experts hope to reduce over $150 billion in damage by 2067 through a combination of hard infrastructure; restoring shoreline and barrier islands; diverting sediment; protecting structures by doing things like flood-proofing and elevating them; and other projects.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which led the development of the Coastal Master Plan, looked at three potential scenarios for the next 50 years that considered changes in precipitation, sea level rise, subsidence, and storm frequency and intensity.  Under the medium scenario, the Authority expects more precipitation, over two feet of sea level rise, stronger – albeit less frequent – storms, and a continued slowing of subsidence.  The agency then modeled what the coastline would look like 50 years out under these conditions with and without this $50 billion investment.

The red represents land lost and the greens are land gained or maintained.  One thing should stand out: even with this ambitious plan from Louisiana, there is still a whole lot of red in the next 50 years.  The state has accepted it cannot save everything that it has right now.  It will lose some coastal communities, infrastructure, businesses, and wildlife habitats.  Louisiana is already at a point of no return, where the forward march of sea level rise and stronger storms will continue to erode the state’s shore. 

Mr./Mdm. President, though faced with this discouraging future, I was impressed by the optimism of the Louisianans I met. 

I spoke with Governor John Bel Edwards, CPRA Chairman Chip Kline, CPRA Director Bren Haase, and Deputy for Coastal Activities Megan Terrell about implementation of the Coastal Master Plan and the future of Louisiana.  The Governor, who has said “[c]limate change is real; I do not deny it,” is committed to implementing the Coastal Master Plan.  The price tag is hefty, but the potential losses to Louisiana are much greater. 

I also spoke with Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge.  While I was in Baton Rouge, the Mississippi was steadily climbing the levees that protect the city.  By March 21 of this year, the number of days at or above “flood stage” in Baton Rouge was on track to set new records.  She pointed out that getting the help communities need to prepare for severe, but unnamed storms, can be difficult.  

Following the release of the Fifth National Climate Assessment in November, Mayor-President Broome said:

After the 1,000-year rain event of 2016 in my city, I have been paying close attention to credible projections for future events.  The NCA … states the combined impacts of sea level rise and storm surge in the southeast have the potential to cost up to $60 billion each year in 2050 and up to $99 billion in 2090; that level of impact cannot be dismissed or put off for the next generation to deal with.

Baton Rouge is home to Louisiana State University and the impressive Center for River Studies.  The Center houses a massive 10,000 square foot interactive model of the Mississippi River Delta.  Not only is it an amazing educational tool, the model allows researchers at LSU, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other partners to better understand the sediment dynamics of the Mississippi River.  Researchers test and model for different precipitation and sea level rise scenarios to improve the management of the river and deployment of important projects.

After Baton Rouge, I went to New Orleans, where I met with Mayor LaToya Cantrell.  Around half of the city lives below sea level.  Strong partnerships between the public and private sectors help make the city a national leader in resiliency planning.  In 2017, the city’s “Climate Action for a Resilient New Orleans” plan pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030.  In March, New Orleans sued eleven oil, gas, and pipeline companies for damage to the wetlands that protect the city from storm surge and flooding. 

Mayor Cantrell spoke to me about “learning to live with water” in the post-Katrina city.  I visited with community leaders in the recovering Lower Ninth Ward, who are turning wetlands restoration projects in the area into education, community engagement, tourism, and other opportunities to rebuild a healthy connection between the city and the water that surrounds it.

I also met with a number of community leaders to discuss how businesses, non-profits, researchers, and government agencies work together to save Louisiana’s “working coastline.”  I heard from a business owner about a property that he is having difficulty insuring due to anticipated flood risks.

I learned about the changes fishermen see in the Gulf, and how some of them have switched to non-traditional fisheries or changed careers completely.  And hunters and recreational fishermen notice worrying changes in their “Sportsmen’s Paradise.”  

Though the evidence of climate change is everywhere in Louisiana and is reshaping the lives of Louisianans, the phrase “climate change” still brings apprehension in some circles.  People talk about sea level rise and other consequences, but addressing the root of the problem head on remains a challenge. 

Having spoken with resiliency experts and seen Louisiana by both sky and model, I took to the water to visit the restoration work in action.  Davis Pond was conceived as a freshwater diversion to push back saltwater intrusion and protect shellfish; it has blossomed into a new patch of marshland teeming with coastal wildlife and dozens of different of bird species. 

I also visited hunter and fisherman Ryan Lambert at his lodge in Buras.  He showed me some of his personal efforts to restore the delta and its wetlands, pointing out how quickly nature can rebound if given the chance.  A scientist with the National Wildlife Federation counted over 30 species of birds just while we were waiting to board the boat.  He spotted over 40 species while we were on the water.   The sights and sounds of a healthy marsh were encouraging, and a reminder of nature’s ability to find a way to not only survive, but to flourish, when allowed.

Louisiana faces challenges ahead, but Louisianans are united in a David versus Goliath-scale battle to protect their state. 

To achieve that goal, Louisiana must urge its fossil fuel tenants to accept responsibility for the climate crisis and to commit to being part of the solution.

Thank you to all the wonderful advocates, researchers, and community and state leaders I met during my visit to Louisiana. 

The dedication of the Louisianans I met to their coast is admirable, and the Coastal Master Plan is a model for all coastal states.

I would also like to thank the senior Senator from Louisiana for welcoming me into his state and joining me here today.  We are both committed to giving our coasts the respect and attention they are due.  I look forward to working together to find opportunities for the federal government to play its role in supporting coastal resiliency and restoration. 

I yield the floor.