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Actively planning for resilience
Feature for Fall, 2018.
By Doria Gordon
Actively planning for resilience
Feature for Fall, 2018.
By Doria Gordon


 NASA Earth Observatory view of
 the Mississippi River Delta showing
 sediment loss. Image by Joshua Stevens
 using MODIS data from LANCE/EOSDIS
 Rapid Response.

It is easy to get discouraged about the degradation of our environment, particularly when we are not working concertedly to meet the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and related impacts on our climate. So it’s encouraging when we can identify local examples of how we can work together to increase the resilience of natural and human systems as they adapt to a number of stresses, from climate to land conversion to pollution.

As one example, long before we understood the impacts of greenhouse gases on climate, we had modified the Mississippi River watershed. Large-scale conversion of prairie and other habitat across the massive Mississippi River drainage system — that extends over 1.245 million square miles from Missouri to New York and up into Canada — started in the 1860s. The rich floodplain soils became agricultural land, supporting America’s bread basket.

We built towns like Cedar Rapids and Dubuque along the rivers that feed the great Mississippi to support the growing population and to transport agricultural and other products. We increased the area available for farming and protected the human landscape by redirecting drainage and constructing levees that prevented flooding and supported navigation. We also dredged and dammed the river and its tributaries to accommodate shipping and oil and gas development. The result was not only substantial food, and now also biofuel production, but also changes that cascaded down to Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta.

One result of all of this re-engineering was reducing and redirecting the majority of the water from high in the watershed, so that it is now largely shunted out into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening water quality there and contributing to the infamous “Dead Zone”. In coastal Louisiana, constraining the overland flow of this land-building water and sediment has basically ended the natural land-building cycles that historically built and rebuilt the vast delta floodplain.

Today, the delta is losing the equivalent of a football field of land every 100 minutes from the combination of land subsidence, loss of sediment that would have rebuilt the land, and increasing sea levels. And that loss is accompanied by increased flooding and storm damage, as well as loss of wildlife habitat and livelihoods in the Mississippi River Delta — to the tune of billions of dollars in threatened and damaged infrastructure. But the work of my colleagues and many others over recent decades gives us hope for a healthier delta.

Below I'll summarize this story of hope that was originally told in a recent blog David Festa, Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Senior Vice President for Ecosystems.

In 2007, Louisiana developed a Coastal Master Plan to provide a blueprint for adapting to changes in the coastal system that result from sediment loss and climate change. EDF helped advise the development of that first plan and the subsequent updates that have occurred in 2012 and 2017. With great foresight, the state requires this updating every six years, allowing current scientific understanding to drive the changes. For example, updated sea level rise estimates are critical for deciding which projects make the most sense.

The planning effort includes coalitions of scientists, planners, and citizens to identify a path forward that might work for all. EDF created an international competition called “Changing Course” to help the development of long-term creative approaches to the integration of ecological management with the needs for flood control and navigation.


 Aerial view of the Native American
 community of Grand Bayou, which is only
 accessible by boat and clearly threatened
 by storm events and rising seas.
 (D. Gordon photo)

The updated 2017 Master Plan, unanimously passed by the Louisiana Legislature, is a 50-year, $50-billion blueprint that includes building multiple structures that will divert water and sediment from the Mississippi River back into the floodplain before it reaches the Gulf. That sediment will expand wetlands in strategic locations by rebuilding and sustaining the marshes, ridges and even coastal forests that support wildlife, recreation, and traditional livelihood; added benefits include absorption of floodwaters and wave energy. The new Mississippi River Delta will be smaller than the original, but it is anticipated to be more resilient to storm events, safer for people, and it will allow continued diversion of sediment to rebuild land that storms remove.

This positive result of focused efforts by EDF and many others took more than a decade to design and will take much of the rest of the century to complete. We will learn and adapt the plan along the way. And while we as humans take on the broader challenge of reducing carbon emissions sufficiently to mitigate the changes we are causing, this work in the Mississippi River Delta shows how collaboration can identify solutions that will help people and nature be more resilient to climate change.

Image Doria Gordon is a Lead Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, with a focus on ecosystems. She has spent over 20 years working on conservation issues in the not-for profit sector. Her current research focuses on predicting invasiveness in plant species using risk assessment tools and assessing the habitat value of working lands. She has also collaborated on research efforts ranging from modeling the effects of sea level rise on coastal habitats to restoration of longleaf pine ecosystems.