Kindra Arnesen’s middle school was a plot of marsh a hundred yards off the southern coast of Louisiana. At 12, after her mother lost her job, Arnesen began skipping school to walk to the harbor in Buras, a town near the mouth of the Mississippi River. A dredge boat ferried her to Bay Adams, where she met a crew of oystermen. They gave her a flatboat, rubber boots, burlap sacks and a hatchet. With a rope looped around her waist, she trudged through the marsh, between the mud banks and the tufts of saw grass, tugging the boat behind her.
“It was just beautiful out there,” Arnesen says today. “Serenity.”
It wasn’t hard to find oysters then — they were everywhere. She bent into the water, yanked out a cluster, shook off the mud, tossed it in the boat. When the boat was full, she climbed onto it. She cleaned the oysters, hacking off debris and dead shells, and fed them into the sacks. By the end of the day, she would have filled 10, earning about $100, the cash placed in an envelope with her name written on it that she picked off the hood of the foreman’s truck. She supported her entire family, with enough left over for Girbauds jeans, Z Cavariccis high-waisted pants and white K-Swiss Classics.
After oyster season, she fished for mullet, shoveled ice at Wet Willie’s Seafood or worked the deck on shrimp boats that left after dark and returned at dawn. The summer she turned 14, she and a girlfriend unloaded 100-pound sacks for aging Vietnamese oystermen. The girls hauled as many as 800 a day, for a dollar a sack.
“As a young girl in a port town, a lot of bad stuff could’ve happened to me,” she says. “Instead of getting in trouble, I worked on an oyster boat. The men and women I worked with taught me to stick up for myself. They saved me from the big bad world.”
Arnesen has since devoted herself to protecting those fishermen from that big bad world. She now runs her own fishing business, bringing amberjack, mullet, pompano, sheepshead and shrimp to distributors that service restaurants in New Orleans and ship up the East Coast. Most days, when not at sea, she drives between Venice, the last town before the Mississippi emptied into the gulf, and New Orleans, about 90 minutes north, buying parts for her fleet, signing paperwork and unloading thousands of pounds of fish from the back of her Chevrolet Silverado 3500 pickup. She has nevertheless found the time to become one of the most prominent national advocates for gulf fishermen. Since the BP oil spill, she has attended just about every public meeting or legislative session concerning the future of the Louisiana fishing industry, which provides about a third of all seafood caught in the continental United States.
“If we don’t fight for these fishing families, if we lose a couple of links out of the generational chain,” she says, “we lose a whole way of life in this country.”
This was how Arnesen found herself on a pre-pandemic afternoon at Belle Chasse Auditorium, 17 river miles south of New Orleans, ready to confront the architects of the world’s largest environmental engineering project: the 50-year, $50 billion Coastal Master Plan, developed by the state of Louisiana, to manage the coast’s furious retreat from the Gulf of Mexico. The plan contains 124 projects designed to build tens of thousands of acres of new land, preserve what remains and protect the coast from hurricanes and sea-level rise. The state did not characterize the plan as the world’s most expensive, and most ambitious, climate-change-adaptation plan, though that could be one way to describe it.
Much of the shrinkage has occurred in Plaquemines Parish, where Arnesen lives and works and which in the last century has withered to almost half its original size. Ten miles downriver of New Orleans, dangling into the Gulf of Mexico, bisected by the Mississippi River but bridgeless, Plaquemines has atrophied for more than seven decades. The parish suffers one of the planet’s fastest rates of relative sea-level rise, thanks to a confluence of worst-case scenarios: As the Gulf of Mexico rises because of global warming, the coastal marsh, scored by oil-and-gas canals and starved of fresh sediment by the encasement of the Mississippi River and the damming of its upriver tributaries, subsides unmitigated. Should nothing be done, Plaquemines will lose more than half of its remaining land, and one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, in the next 50 years.
This is not just a problem for Plaquemines, or Louisiana. It is a crisis for the United States. The threatened three million acres of marsh, approximately the landmass of Connecticut, are the coast’s first line of defense against the ouroboric perils of hurricanes and sea-level rise. The marsh defends 17 percent of the nation’s crude-oil production; 8 percent of its natural-gas reserves; a port connected to more than half of the nation’s oil-refining capacity; the city of New Orleans and its port; the homes of more than 1.5 million people; and the integrity of the lower Mississippi River, which conveys nearly 40 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports. The effort to rebuild the coast is one of this country’s first critical tests of the climate age.
In one of the reddest states in the nation, the master plan enjoys thunderous bipartisan support; in 2017, when it last came up for a vote, a single state legislator opposed it. Initial funding concerns were alleviated by an infusion of $4 billion received from the settlement of the BP oil-spill lawsuits, which enabled the early stages of the diversion projects to commence. But the plan will not help everybody. It may require the government to use private land to build transformative engineering projects that will render parts of the coast unrecognizable — or rather, to distinguish from the coast’s current anomalous appearance, unrecognizable in new ways. The Coastal Master Plan will not only test the limits of our species’ capacity to engineer our environment; it will also test the government’s capacity for compelling even a small, relatively powerless group of people, against their will, to suffer in the name of climate policy. Should the master plan succeed, it would benefit the many. It would also harm the few.
Kindra Arnesen spoke for the few. She tried not to miss one of the monthly public meetings, at which the state’s engineers struggled to reassure those who feared that their lives would be ruined by the projects in the master plan. The engineers, who were far more comfortable speaking about hydraulic design and earthen containment dikes than climate ethics, greeted her with wary decorousness. “We have to be present, or they can say there’s ‘no opposition,’” Arnesen said. “I see this as doomsday. This will end us.”
This was the centerpiece of the master plan: the construction of new, man-made diversions in Plaquemines Parish. The state would cut open the federal levee, creating powerful new distributaries of the Mississippi River that will flush sediment into the marsh, building land. These engineered floods would simulate the geological process that created the Mississippi Delta in the first place. The initial two incisions are to be made in the levees about 25 and 35 river miles south of New Orleans. Construction on the mid-Barataria Diversion on the west bank, could begin as soon as the end of 2022, followed by the mid-Breton Diversion on the east bank. Once running at full capacity, the diversions would themselves rank among the nation’s largest rivers. Both will flow at more than two times the volume of the Hudson River. Over the course of years and decades, it is hoped, the gargantuan volume of sediment borne by the diversions will patch the holes in the marsh’s moth-eaten fabric. Lost species will return and biological diversity will increase. The local fisheries might ultimately become even more productive.
In the short term, however, the diversions will transform the delicate estuarine ecosystems. They would likely massacre giant populations of oysters, brown shrimp, blue crab and dozens of species of fish. Areas of brackish water will turn fresh, and saltwater vegetation will die. Plaquemines Parish has the largest commercial fishing fleet in the continental United States. Arnesen worried that the diversions would destroy it.
The engineers’ responses to Arnesen’s concerns were pallid, technocratic. They noted that, if they failed to build land, not only the fisheries but the parish itself would, in the coming decades, vanish entirely. They pointed out that the presence of brackish water so close to the river was a historical anomaly. And they argued that the freshwater would bring new species to fish.
The high-minded dismissiveness of the engineers gave Arnesen fits. “Most of the people living here don’t have the options that my family has,” she said. “These boats aren’t cheap.” A small fishing skiff can cost $30,000, a larger shrimp trawler tops $750,000, without accounting for gear and licenses. Most fishermen could not afford to diversify or wouldn’t know how. A shrimper would lose his house if he had to run a catfish business; the tourists who come to southern Louisiana from around the world to hire speckled-trout charter captains would not travel for shad. Oystermen were in the most precarious position of all. Oyster leases, which the state rents at $3 per acre per year, have terms of 15 years. They are bequeathed to heirs like any other real estate. An oyster farmer is as bound to his submerged plot as a dairy farmer to his pasture. It is about as easy for an oysterman to start fishing largemouth bass as it would be for an alfalfa farmer to raise pigs. It is possible but difficult, risky and usually cost-prohibitive.
The master plan aimed to “balance” a suite of objectives: to “provide flood protection, use natural processes, provide habitat for commercial and recreational activities, sustain our unique cultural heritage and support our working coast.” This was unimpeachable in theory, offering something for everyone. But the plan was silent on what to do when these objectives came into direct conflict. What happened when flood-protection measures threatened cultural heritage? Or when “natural processes” interfered with a “working coast”? It drove Arnesen crazy, the refusal to acknowledge that not all objectives were treated equally. It was obvious to her that the state cared more about the oil-and-gas industry than the fisheries, that it worried a lot more about keeping New Orleans dry than Buras, that expanding the river’s shipping capacity was more important than preserving the heritage of generational fishing communities. Most maddening of all was the plan’s emphasis on the future over the present.
“I don’t just do this because it’s my living,” Arnesen said as she left the meeting, trailing an entourage of well-wishers. “They’ve made our community feel like we’re the trade-off and we don’t matter. It’s easy for the state to say they’re going to come up with an adaptation plan. But what’s the point of an adaptation plan if the end goal isn’t the survival of the people you’re trying to save?”
The survival of the people. How to characterize the way of life threatened by the diversions? It did not simply entail the right to fish the same species that your grandfather fished, or to inhabit the same half-acre, or to live off the fruit of the sea and land, though that was all part of it. It wouldn’t be at all accurate to say that the lowest stretch of the Mississippi was more remote than any other rural area of America, though it often feels that way. To an interloper from New Orleans, the lower Mississippi looks like the end of the world, a wilderness untouched by human interference — despite the fact that the land in its current form owes its existence to human interference. You could say, at the very least, that it remained possible to live a life of wildness and freedom there. This was especially true for those living on the wrong side of the Wall.
It was not technically a wall, but that’s how it was known in Plaquemines. Officially it was the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, known by the punishing acronym HSDRRS (“his dress”). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the $14.5 billion interlocking network of gates, levees and flood walls in response to the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina — New Orleans’s answer to the Netherlands’ Delta Works. It was designed with the explicit goal of protecting the New Orleans metropolitan area from a catastrophic hurricane. The system drew a line separating those who would be kept safe from those who would be abandoned to the furies. New Orleans metro would be saved. The entire east bank of Plaquemines Parish was consigned to the sacrifice zone. Today those scattered beyond the Wall are regarded by those inside the Wall, if they are regarded at all, with an uneasy combination of bafflement and pity.
In Plaquemines it is a matter of faith, if not scientific proof, that the Wall was responsible for the devastation wrought by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. While New Orleans experienced only minor street flooding, parts of Plaquemines beyond the Wall lay below 17 feet of water. The Corps blamed the disparity on the path taken by the storm, holding the Wall entirely innocent of blame. Plaqueminers believe the Wall trapped the storm surge in their parish, as a dammed river will turn a valley into a lake.
“We never had water here before the Wall,” said Kermit Williams Jr., standing on his family land at Wills Point, the site of the proposed mid-Breton Diversion. This far down the river, the parish ran a single property wide. The backyards terminated at the parish levee, which defended against the encroaching marshes of Breton Basin, and where the parish’s coyote, wild boar, deer, cattle, rabbits and buzzards congregated during hurricanes, seeking high land. The front yards met the highway that trimmed the base of the federal levee. Here the Mississippi was both invisible and oppressive, a tiger in a cloaked cage. It could not be seen from the ground, even though, on this afternoon, it was 17 feet higher than the ground. Often the crown of an oil tanker or cruise ship, passing like spaceships, crested above the levee’s rim. The saturated flood wall oozed water that collected in ominous puddles along the highway.
The assemblage of structures on Williams’s parcel made a living tableau of the parish’s century. Several hundred yards back from the road lurked the ruined husk of a three-bedroom house overgrown with dead vines, cypress trees and a vibrating nest of honeybees. It had belonged to his grandfather; Williams’s father was born in its living room in 1910. Before it stood a green stucco house, built in 1949 on a low foundation of concrete blocks, where Williams lived until Hurricane Isaac. Williams now lives with his daughter in a third house, closest to the highway. Like most of the occupied properties along this Lorax-like stretch of the parish, it stood on stilts more than 20 feet high.
Williams commiserated about the brutal history of heavy-handed interventions in the parish with his neighbors, the brothers Danny and John Hunter. The men, who were in their late 50s, agreed that the parish could survive Nature but it might not survive the State of Louisiana. Their litany of grievances began in 1927, with the dynamiting of the levee at Caernarvon, a few miles upriver, a shortsighted gambit to spare New Orleans from flooding. The explosions lasted 10 days and created a flow of a quarter-million cubic feet of water per second through the parish — a Superdome of water every eight minutes and 20 seconds. For the next six decades, most of the local marsh was perpetually inundated, the greatest part of it a brackish pond called Big Mar that grew saltier each year. In the 1960s came the construction of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a canal offering a shorter route from the gulf to New Orleans — a dagger through the heart of the marsh that accelerated land loss and contributed to the 13 feet of water that flooded the Hunters’ childhood home in St. Bernard after the assault of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. (“It was pretty traumatic,” John says more than 50 years later.) Over the following decades, a series of smaller diversions on the east bank were abandoned, despite promises from the state. This made the construction of the Wall feel less like a fresh betrayal than the physical manifestation of a psychic boundary between the haves and have-nots that has existed for nearly a century.
The Hunters spoke about the master plan in the cadence of undecided voters. They recognized the need to fortify the marshes, particularly given the ever-increasing projections of sea-level rise in the parish. “If it builds land, I’m for it,” John said. Danny agreed, saying, “Everyone’s for building land.” They could remember a time, not very long ago, when you could catch mangrove snapper in New Orleans East, before speckled trout appeared in the shipping canals, when oyster were plentiful on the east bank.
Yet they had internalized the arguments made by the Save Louisiana Coalition, the only nonprofit opposed to the master plan, which represented the movement of fishermen desperate to stop the government from trying to save them. Although the fishermen had been making arguments against the diversions for years, the winter of 2019 — the wettest winter the Mississippi Valley had in 124 years — provided hard evidence for their apocalyptic predictions. Everything they feared from the diversions came true, just a few miles upriver.
As the Mississippi River rose at a terrifying rate, the corps opened a different kind of diversion: the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which functions as a release valve when the lower Mississippi comes close to overtopping its levees. Before last year, the corps had opened the spillway a dozen times since 1927 and never in consecutive years. In 2019 it was opened twice, for a cumulative 123 days, easily a record. (This year it has already been open 29 days.) Oyster populations collapsed, hundreds of dolphins were stranded across the Gulf Coast and the Department of Commerce declared a federal fisheries disaster. Lawsuits against the corps were filed by the state of Mississippi, Biloxi and several other cities on the Mississippi coast and two environmental groups that contended the corps failed to consider the diverted water’s effects on leatherback sea turtles and West Indian manatees.
The Hunters worried that the diversions would make the spillway’s ecological outrages permanent. They were concerned about the toxicity of the Mississippi River, the second-most-polluted river in the United States (after the Ohio, its largest tributary). They couldn’t stomach the thought of the river poisoning the marsh. And they couldn’t understand the state’s emphasis on long-term benefits. “The scientists might be right, but the plan looks ahead to 50 years in the future,” John said. “We don’t have 50 years. We need it done now.”
Even the 50-year window is misleading, as every six years the clock starts anew. The master plan is perpetually, implacably, forward-looking. It is a model for the kind of governmental response that galloping climate change demands: an agenda that combines mitigation and adaptation, while retaining the flexibility to respond to unforeseen developments, whether positive or catastrophic. It is the rare example of legislation in which the costs are borne immediately and the greatest benefits will not accrue until after the deaths of currently elected officials. The Mississippi River has been managed by the Army Corps of Engineers for nearly a century. The master plan intends to manage the coast for longer.
The mid-Breton diversion will require the state to go through the Hunters’ land. The diversion would be dug right beside the property line and the state highway would be rerouted through his backyard. The brothers used the word “reparations.” But the value of Danny Hunter’s land far surpassed its real estate value. The rich alluvial soil had given Hunter what he figured was one of America’s most fertile backyard gardens, with its profusion of creole tomatoes, eggplant, snap bean, cucumbers and squash. Every spring his grove of satsuma and navel-orange trees produced such an abundance of fruit that branches snapped under the weight. In the back of the property, Danny had dug a long pond that he stocked with crawfish, which the raccoons liked to poach. Owls, cardinals and blue jays nested in the live oak trees. When Danny wanted to escape, he strolled along the back levee, fringed with yellow wildflowers, and gazed into the marsh. Mattresses of clover dotted with white buds plunged into a plaid of Roseau cane, yellow palm and skeletal stands of cypress, killed by saltwater intrusion. The ground looked solid, but in most places it would melt under the pressure of a boot.
“This is my peaceful place,” Danny said. “When I’m in the right frame of mind, I get on my knees.”
A few miles upriver, along the southern flank of the Wall, John Lopez, who is as responsible as anyone for concocting the strategy behind the Coastal Master Plan, and Theryn Henkel, a coastal ecologist, were speeding on an airboat from the levee down a man-made channel to visit a man-made swamp that was becoming a man-made forest. Airboat travel feels less like boat travel than air travel: You glide over a changeable terrain of open water, swamp, grass, island, rarely feeling so much as a bump or jostle. A Kris Kristofferson type with a pleasingly gruff demeanor, Lopez wore heavy earmuffs to mute the clamor of the dual fan engines. At the airboat’s approach, a succession of alligators, startled out of their ruminations, flopped into the water like divers in a Busby Berkeley musical.
Lopez began to worry about the inadequacy of the U.S. government’s response to the slow-motion disaster of the disintegrating Louisiana coast in 2005. While working for the Army Corps of Engineers’ coastal-restoration program, he began to realize that the corps’ approach wasn’t nearly ambitious enough. On nights and weekends, he developed his own strategy to save the coast.
He thought that it was too late merely to preserve what remained. More land had to be built. Lopez’s solution resembled the one that has been reached repeatedly by climate experts in the last 40 years. Nothing less than a maximalist approach — borne by desperation, terror and an unshakable belief in human will and ingenuity — would suffice, price be damned. The financial cost would be severe, particularly up front, though it would be cheaper than the alternative: the swift, unmitigated collapse of the coast. The personal cost was more difficult to quantify. Lopez, like the state and the federal government, fell back on utilitarian arguments: the many prioritized above the few. If the Louisianian fishermen were one of the first groups to be passed over by climate policy, they wouldn’t be alone. They would soon be joined by coal miners, offshore roughnecks, long-haul truck drivers, Sonoran farmers, Miami Beach condo owners. Lopez felt bad for them, he did. But he felt for everyone else more.
Lopez called it the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy. He delivered his moonshot to his colleagues in June 2005. It was greeted politely. “There weren’t a lot of questions,” Lopez says. “My boss said, ‘John, this is a really good idea, but the corps can’t do this.’” Lopez agreed. The corps’ bureaucracy was too Balkanized to allow for the kind of systemic campaign that Lopez knew was required. In July he presented his paper at a national meeting in New Orleans sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was awarded a prize named for the environmental activist Orville T. Magoon, honoring the greatest contribution to the public understanding of coastal threats. Still nobody took him seriously. Louisiana’s bureaucracy was as sclerotic as the corps’; how could it possibly address a problem of this scale? And where would the impoverished state find the billions to fund such a plan? A month later, Katrina hit.
In the subsequent period of dread and opportunity, Louisiana merged its coastal-restoration and flood-control divisions, creating a centralized entity called the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. CPRA — “sip rah” — set about formulating a grand plan to preserve the coast. Lopez’s Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy became its organizing principle. Implicit in the plan was the acknowledgment that a stable coast required constant, and profound, human intervention. Lopez believed this approach was required not only in Louisiana but globally. “There’s no such thing as a pristine environment, an environment that can be left on its own without being managed,” Lopez says. “We’re past that point. It’s like Colin Powell said: ‘You break it, you own it.’ Well, we own it now.”
The master plan spoke of “coastal restoration,” of “rebuilding” and “saving” the wetlands. But these were euphemisms. What was lost cannot be restored, no more than the past can be relived. The best that now can be achieved is an artful simulacrum of a river delta that serves the same ecological and economic ends. The master plan is the blueprint for this simulacrum.
The canal followed by Lopez’s airboat ran perpendicularly from the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of Engineers had blasted through the levee here in 1991, creating an earlier diversion of the river, formally known as the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Structure. The diversion opened at the very site of the 1927 crevasse, blasting open both an earthen and a psychological wound. In a reversal of the current river politics, the diversion was heavily supported by local oystermen, whose crop had declined for decades because of saltwater intrusion. After Caernarvon opened, the inundation of river water destroyed oyster production in the neighboring marsh. But it boosted production across the larger area, as salinity levels in the Breton Basin returned to historic averages. Caernarvon remains a sore point for local fishermen; Lopez uses it as a showcase for the power of human ingenuity to build an environment that is, by all appearances, natural.
It was expected that the salinity of the marsh would plunge after the river began to flood it. The great shock of the Caernarvon diversion was that it also began to produce land. Caernarvon, unlike the diversions in the master plan, was not designed to capture sediment; for land-building purposes, it could not have been more poorly designed. It was situated at a bend in the river where the water flowed quickly, limiting sediment buildup; it was operated intermittently, at low volumes; and it siphoned from the river’s surface, where sediment concentration was lowest and finest. Yet Caernarvon had nevertheless managed to perform a stunning magic trick.
The airboat pivoted sharply into a narrow watery trail through denser forest. Lopez and Henkel have taken to calling this passage Bayou Bonjour. NOAA has delisted more than 40 place names from nautical maps of the parish since 2011, among them Bayous Long, Caiman and Tony; Lopez and Henkel hope that Bayou Bonjour will be the first of many place names to be added by the diversions. Bonjour was not technically a tributary or a creek; it was the final vestige of a lake remaining between two lobes of land that had grown toward each other.
Bayou Bonjour debouched into a steaming marsh indistinguishable from thousands of others in southern Louisiana. Suspended in the shallow water were what botanists call S.A.V., or submerged aquatic vegetation, that took the form of green Mardi Gras wigs, tattered velvet, elephantine dill. The roots trap sediment like weirs. The mud clots until it surfaces as islets. The virgin land sprouts exclamatory tufts of giant cut-grass, named for its razor-edged leaves, which draw blood. Saplings colonize the accreting land, led by black willow, which shoot up 30 feet within a few years. “I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams imagined that there’d be a forest here,” Lopez said. But a forest stood before him. It stood at the edge of the marsh, on land that 15 years ago was the open water of Big Mar pond. The Caernarvon diversion has created more than 800 solid acres in Big Mar alone.
There are still puddles and elongated pools in Big Mar, though none more than three feet in depth. “The whole Big Mar is really restored,” Lopez said. “It never was going to be entirely solid land. You want ponds, grass, forest, S.A.V.” The proximity of so many habitats has attracted a wide range of species. That afternoon Henkel and Lopez spotted a blue heron, a white ibis, roseate spoonbills, redwing black birds, egrets and a twitching mullet clutched in an osprey’s talons. The air swarmed with midges; monarch butterflies played around the bull tongue; and iridescent blue dragonflies browsed the hyacinth.
“When I’m out here,” Henkel said, “I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park.”
To secure what territorial gains have been made and hasten the maturation of the forest, the Pontchartrain Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group that Lopez helped found in 1989, led the effort to plant 36,000 trees in the Caernarvon area, mainly bald cypress, as well as water tupelo, swamp red maple, green ash and black gum. Most of these have been planted by migrant workers, a dozen of whom will plant 5,000 trees in a week. (There are also planting days staffed by local volunteers, though they perform a service less efficient than educational.) The cypress saplings wore plastic collars as a defense from the nutria, which gnawed them to death. After bursting from the collars, the trees were crowded by an understory of elephant ears, arrowleaf and black gum. Deeper in the forest skulked muskrat, raccoons, coyote, deer and wild boar. Henkel did Dr. Frankenstein: “It’s alive!”
The diversion and the land it built were an ecological monster — a product of human engineering, compromise and brute force. Like most man-made things it was unruly, even clumsy; its charms, and its dangers, were accidental and unforeseen. It was not, by any conventional definition, natural. But it was alive.
Asked whether this was the future he saw for southern Louisiana — man-made rivers, man-made marshes, man-made forests — Lopez acknowledged that he had a provisional view of the problem. Even under the rosiest projections for the diversions, the future coast would be “skeletal” compared to its current form, but “functional,” at least in economic and ecological terms. He expected to preserve the state’s highway systems, railroads, port and energy facilities. He was even optimistic about its fisheries, albeit in some altered condition. “We can expect that there will be crab, shrimp and oysters,” Lopez said. “We just can’t say where or how much.” He had fond memories of family fishing trips to Plaquemines Parish as a child, catching speckled trout off the coast near Buras, where Kindra Arnesen dredged for oysters. He respected the fears that Arnesen and her allies expressed about the threats posed by the diversions to the local fisheries. Still he did not have a tremendous amount of sympathy for their plight. “I’m not saying the transition is going to be easy, or that it won’t cost money,” he said. “But I’m also not saying that the state or anyone else is responsible for helping.” Just because your father was an electrician, Lopez said, by way of example, and your father’s father was an electrician, doesn’t mean that you need to be an electrician or that the government should incentivize you to be one. Some people in the local fishing industry, like Arnesen, might be able to adjust, buying new boats and fishing new species. Others won’t.
In May, a team of Tulane researchers led by the geologist Torbjorn Tornqvist published a study in the journal Science Advances that showed that Louisiana’s remaining 6,000 square miles of coastal wetlands were far closer to collapse than previously recognized. The present-day rate of relative sea-level rise has already surpassed the tipping point at which the drowning of the marsh is unstoppable. Asked by Mark Schleifstein of The Times-Picayune-The New Orleans Advocate to translate his scientific findings, Tornqvist said, “We’re screwed.”
Still Tornqvist was an ardent supporter of the diversions. So was his report’s second author, Krista Jankowski, who as a graduate student conducted much of the research for the paper and joined CPRA two years ago. The master plan, as John Lopez was quick to point out after the publication of their study, has already taken its findings into account. If Tornqvist and his colleagues were right, the southern marsh will ultimately succumb to the rising sea, and if New Orleans exists, it will be as an island city. But they did expect the diversions to extend the life of the coast by decades. “Having a few more decades could mean the difference between something that looks like managed retreat to something that looks like complete chaos,” Tornqvist says. “That’s easily worth a couple of billion dollars, because it’s not hard to imagine the amount of suffering that would be the result of leaving everyone in this whole region to fight for themselves.”
We may all be screwed in the long term, but even central planners worried about the medium term. Engineers often planned in 50-year increments: The design life of most structures, whether buildings or bridges or levees, tended to be 50 years. That was why the master plan was a 50-year plan. By 2070, if Lopez’s calculations were right, and the sediment diversions worked as designed, we wouldn’t all be screwed. But a few of us would be. It was not written in any official document, but that was part of the plan, too.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of the book “Losing Earth: A Recent History,” based on an article that appeared in the magazine.