“When land is lost to rising waters on the shore, it becomes property of the state,” explains James Wilkins, Director of Law & Policy at the Louisiana Sea Grant. This policy is clear on the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which is walking distance from a marsh under two feet of water. The marsh is currently public, but Pontchartrain is an estuary, making it subject to tidal fluctuations and sea level rise. If the western shore were permanently inundated— which may happen with continued sea level rise— the marsh would officially be state land. The same policy applies to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands: We are on lower land than most other states, and water is therefore quick to encroach on our developed areas. This makes Louisiana’s wetland owners liable to lose their property rights and territories simultaneously. “The reality behind owning property on the shore is that it will not be there forever,” says Wilkins. Deltas by definition shrink and grow over long periods of time, but the shrinking process is being fast-tracked in Louisiana by rising tides: storm surges bring harmful sediments into the wetlands, and saltwater destroys their vegetation and in turn their soil. At this point, a football field of wetlands vanishes every 45 minutes, and some parts of the state lose nine millimeters annually.
The Louisiana Constitution gives wetland owners the option to rebuild their property to compensate for any inundation. These are massive projects that require depositing dirt (containing organic matter) and sediment (which comes from the bottoms of bodies of water) on the shorelines. However, this is a very expensive process that requires a permit, and is therefore unavailable to many wetland owners.
To save their land rights and productivity, wetland owners often armor the shorelines with bulkheads, which cut off the water and sand that provide necessary sediments to the shore. They also construct levees to literally wall out the water; this preserves our marshes here and now (and keeps them above high tide, which is the “depth bar” for state ownership), but may ultimately worsen the impacts of sea level rise by holding off increasing amounts of water. Artificial walls also keep Louisiana locals like blue crab and shellfish from their nursing areas, both disrupting the ecosystem and shortchanging the fishermen who rely on these species economically.
Reversing or stabilizing wetland loss demands large-scale projects. Such projects can benefit the ecosystem, but implementing them loops back to the issue of individual property rights. “Ownership becomes even more complicated when federal funds are used to rebuild an area,” says Wilkins. “It’s going to be difficult to maintain a lot of private wetlands in the coming years.”