EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Louisiana's Coastal Leadership

Jun 18, 2018

“What Louisiana knows so well is what communities around the world are learning — preparing for the last disaster isn’t enough.”

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards views the potential for transforming coastal habitats in his state as an unprecedented opportunity. In the state capital of Baton Rouge, The Water Institute of the Gulf anchors a growing, multidisciplinary research and development complex known as The Water Campus. There, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the Water Institute’s applied research, and professional engineering and construction firms are tackling the challenges of Louisiana’s coastal crisis by developing solutions for the state’s $50 billion coastal protection and restoration plan. That coastal ingenuity will be exported to challenged habitats worldwide. Here’s what the Governor shared with Sustainability in conjunction with the recent 10X Water Summit in Baton Rouge. Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Tim Nixon: Why is the 10X Water Summit important to managing global water risk?

Governor Edwards: The 10X Water Summit is just one more collaborative step in Louisiana’s continuing advancement in technologies, science and knowledge that not only benefit the future survival of our coastal communities, but have applications to other states, regions and communities around the world.

We’ve spent years doing the science and the planning to come up with a globally recognized, science-based master plan for our coast that takes into account the environment, the economy and resident safety. The 10X Water Summit serves as an extension of that wider-reaching effort in bringing together leaders who are dealing with water management issues across different landscapes and climates, all for the greater good.

Tim Nixon: How is the State of Louisiana leading on this important remit?

Governor Edwards: The people of Louisiana have considerable experience with water management risks — from the flooding of rivers and massive rainfall events, to the storm surge from tropical systems — that have threatened our communities and economy. Through that experience, we have developed tools and science-based plans that help our leaders and residents to better prepare before these impactful events and to better recover after them. What Louisiana knows so well is what communities around the world are learning — preparing for the last disaster isn’t enough.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana formed a new agency to directly address our ongoing loss of land and the increased storm risk that comes with that — the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, or CPRA. Every five years, this body crafts a comprehensive, science-based plan that guides all our actions. Our state’s universities have some of the finest minds when it comes to providing the science that backs these plans. Complementing and enhancing this work are the scientists, planners and engineers at the Water Institute of the Gulf and, in addition, we now have a place we can point to on the map: The Water Campus in Baton Rouge will be the epicenter of coastal research and action. This 35-acre campus currently under development already houses the CPRA, Louisiana State University’s small-scale physical model of the Mississippi River, and The Water Institute of the Gulf’s headquarters. Our intention is to have The Water Campus bring together not only state and university researchers, but also private water management resources and experts to create a collaborative atmosphere that will enhance the innovative science already coming out of Louisiana and being exported to communities around the world.

Tim Nixon: Where are the economic opportunities for the State in investing in this leadership?

Governor Edwards: Our situation in Louisiana — with a coast that has lost more than 2,000 square miles since 1932, according to the United States Geological Survey — is that water management has been a challenge for generations and will continue to be for the long-term. Because of that reality, we’ve gotten ahead of other regions in developing the science to support our decision-making and the processes to implement solutions. So, when challenges arise in other coastal communities in the U.S. or around the world, Louisiana has something to offer.

This sector is already poised to expand in the future, so it only makes sense to continue to invest in the leadership and knowledge that will help the sector grow to its full potential. According to Greater New Orleans Inc.’s 2016 State of the Sector for Water Management, this sector in the New Orleans region alone is expected to grow 23 percent over the next 10 years. In addition, after the tragedy of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, a settlement was reached that provides dedicated funding to support the work that is needed to revitalize and restore parts of our coastline. Add to that, federal funds from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, and Louisiana’s annual investment in coastal restoration and protection projects could approach $800 million, a level that will support tens of thousands of jobs and boost our state’s economy.

Tim Nixon: How significant are these opportunities?

Governor Edwards: They literally are lifelines for preservation and engines for growth. They offer the ability for communities to continue to thrive, for businesses to continue to operate, and for our cultural identity and safety to flourish. These opportunities are nothing short of survival, not only for us here in Louisiana, but for communities globally.

Tim Nixon: Do you see these economic opportunities growing as global temperatures continue to rise?

Governor Edwards: What we’ve seen in Louisiana — sinking land and rising seas — is something that cities around the country and world are starting to see right now. Louisiana’s head start in the water management and resiliency sectors can only help these communities, which should provide significant opportunities for Louisiana-based businesses, universities and nonprofits.

Tim Nixon: Do we have the technical know-how and innovation now to cope with the worst of the risks?

Governor Edwards: As advanced as the science and technical innovations have become in Louisiana, there are always improvements to be made. Each storm, each flood teaches us something new, and we have gotten very good at incorporating these “lessons learned” into our plans for the future. Since the 1990s, we’ve joined federal agencies through the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to design and implement restoration solutions. After the devastating 2005 hurricane season, we reorganized Louisiana’s approach — through a new executive branch office and a board of directors representing multiple state agencies and regional appointees — to better integrate coastal protection and restoration efforts, and to craft a singular set of policies and vision for our future.

And over the course of crafting three comprehensive coastal master plans — engaging with the brightest minds in this field and thousands of residents along our coast — our approach to managing the coast has advanced tremendously. Addressing this problem and all of its implications is complex, and the science tells us the road ahead will be steep. We are committed to implementing the best solutions that are available to us. We’ll manage these projects, adapt new approaches and continue to learn as we see changes on the ground.

Tim Nixon: Is managing water risk also about an ethical duty to those less financially able to prepare and respond to flood or drought?

Governor Edwards: Yes, absolutely. What we learned as a state after hurricanes Katrina and Rita is that our most economically disadvantaged residents are the ones who will be impacted the greatest when disaster strikes. This lesson applies not only to storms, but to the more gradual changes we are seeing along our coastline. People who are most able to move out of harm’s way have done so, leaving only those with the fewest resources at the highest risk. The changes we implemented after those devastating storms show that we can, and absolutely should, make preparations before and after storms that account for all our residents’ needs, with a particularly strong focus on those with the greatest need.

We focused much of our long-term community assessments and planning on ways to rebuild so that flood, wind and storm risk is less likely to threaten lives and to disrupt lifestyles in the future. The work of the Water Institute of the Gulf and other longstanding nonprofits in South Louisiana is applying restoration and engineering solutions to our problem, and also providing social and economic interventions that will build resilience for communities. The flip side of our location and experience is that Louisiana, generally speaking, has been less susceptible to drought risks and wildfires than other geographies, but, yes, anything related to hydrology and the impact of water on interior watersheds, as well as coastlines, is central and germane to our work.

Tim Nixon: It’s sometimes said that becoming more sustainable or “green” always requires lower levels of business profitability. Is this how you see it?

Governor Edwards: Not at all. When we embarked on the concept of creating The Water Campus, with a great boost from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, our economic development department — LED — commissioned a study to calculate the economic potential of this water management sector in Louisiana. The numbers are staggering, just as the solutions are critical. Cultivating sustainable businesses, resilient communities, and a healthy environment are essential for profitability and a thriving economy. In Louisiana and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, our environment and our economy are intrinsically linked. Take the oil and gas industry, for example. Billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure is located along the northern Gulf of Mexico, and not a small part of it is in Louisiana. Restoring coastal ecosystems, while good for wildlife and communities, is also good for protecting industry and infrastructure across the coast. This includes a nationally significant energy sector, maritime trade and commerce, internationally renowned tourism, and thriving fisheries. It’s generally accepted that finding ways to live more harmoniously with the water is something that will stimulate research, innovation, economic activity and security for all Louisiana residents.

Tim Nixon: What will the 10X Water Summit be about 10 years from now?

Governor Edwards: Ten years from now, a 10X Water Summit will be focused on how this region of forward-thinking water experts helped export their knowledge to the global community — how we addressed the gamut of water issues, from flooding and land loss to drought and development. The 10X Water Summit will furnish evidence of an undeniable engineering, science and governance partnership that stretches across America. With a clear view of that evidence, many communities will be seeking to participate in this effort to preserve and restore coastal and deltaic habitats, to better preserve and manage water resources, and to protect the more than 2 billion coastal inhabitants worldwide.