By Meg Sutton, Environmental Defense Fund
Last week, scientists, engineers, community leaders, policymakers, business owners and other coastal interests gathered in New Orleans for the 2012 State of the Coast Conference. The event was organized by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) and Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) with the mission of providing a forum in which to learn about advances in coastal science and engineering and to ensure that this knowledge is applied to current and future coastal projects. To better inform project implementation, these science and technology topics cut across other themes including funding, policy and community resilience.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Preparing for a Changing Future.” Special attention was paid to the recently released 2012 Coastal Master Plan and the implications of climate change. These events and issues, however, are underpinned by past legacies and present realities. Conference organizers and participants acknowledged this by painting a multigenerational picture, starting with the beginning of Mississippi River flood control and navigation and extending to plans for coastal sustainability a century into the future. Organizers highlighted the vulnerable present state of the coast and stressed that if we hope to have a sustainable future for the coast, the time for action is now.
In the first conference plenary session, Craig Colten of Louisiana State University gave a historical briefing of Mississippi River management, beginning with the 1720 colonial mandate to construct levees to protect areas from flooding. He continued by describing the subsequent trajectory that was increasingly path-dependent on levee and outlet systems that lead to the strong economic growth and development of the area but also contributed to high land loss and an exceedingly vulnerable coast. In order to both regain land and reduce vulnerabilities, the major functioning of the levee and outlet system in New Orleans has to be addressed. The almost 300-year history of the New Orleans levee system is a legacy that has contributed to present land loss rates, and without reconciling this reality, it precludes a future sustainable coastline.
Nothing was more relevant to the conference’s conversations than the impending threat of tropical storm Debby. At the beginning of the conference, there were concerns that Debby may impact New Orleans. Because of this possible threat, Garrett Graves of the CPRA delivered the conference’s opening address in place of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who was unable to attend due to the possibility of an emergency evacuation of the city. While the skies proved clear throughout the conference, it highlighted the current coastal vulnerability of New Orleans.
Paul Harrison of Environmental Defense Fund summed up these colliding issues by commenting that we have a 21st century issue in front of us: How do we reduce storm vulnerability, and how do we rebuild land? More importantly, how do we do this while balancing community and economic needs? Dr. Susanne Moser, of Susanne Moser Research and Consulting, reminded attendees in her keynote address that the 2012 Coastal Master Plan is as much about protecting people as it is about saving wetlands.
In order to address these questions, experts in their respective fields gave over 100 key research presentations, three keynote speeches, 100 poster presentations and hosted two panel discussions over the course of the three-day conference. Major topic themes included relative sea level rise, innovative restoration approaches, ecosystem service benefits of wetlands, subsidence, sediment management, barrier islands, existing restoration programs, hydrology, coastal ecology and many others. Each presentation alluded to past events, present conditions and what the research means in the context of a sustainable future coastline in Louisiana.
To find out more about the 2012 State of the Coast conference, please visit www.stateofthecoast.org, where a summary of proceedings will be published shortly. The 2010 proceedings report can be found at the same address.