One researcher called the state’s shrinking coast the “worst environmental and socioeconomic disaster in North America.” The price tag to mitigate the damage is larger than philanthropy can afford, but some funders are finding a role.
The statistics behind the disappearance of Louisiana’s boot, the marshy, silty coastland where the Mississippi River finds the Gulf, are staggering. The most commonly cited figure is that the state loses about a football field of land every hour. From 1932 to 2000, the state lost an amount of land about the equivalent of the state of Delaware.
The cause is a mix of climate change, drilling and dredging for oil and gas exploration, and the use of levees on the Mississippi River, according to some excellent investigative work conducted lately (see here, here and here). And in a state where the economy and politics are saturated in oil and gas, the fight to save the coast has been a fierce one, most notably over a massive lawsuit against 97 energy companies to pay for restoration efforts.
Currently, the state is looking at a bill of about $50 billion to execute its Coastal Master Plan (although outside estimates say even that’s much too low), and is trying to find a way to pay for it beyond a chunk of BP settlement funds.
This is sort of your classic, huge civic problem that can’t be patched by philanthropy, and the public and private sectors are currently duking it out over who should pay for what. But there are still some funders heavily involved in the slow-moving disaster.
One large philanthropy-fueled project in the Mississippi River Delta is Changing Course, a competition seeking out the boldest ideas to address the wasting away of the region. The competition is meant to draw in teams of engineers, scientists, planners and designers to come up with ideas for a self-sustaining landscape for the delta. The project runs parallel and in coordination with the state’s Master Plan, seeking to sort of supercharge its tactics with a big design competition.
The project is shepherded by the Environmental Defense Fund, and some of the biggest environmental funders in the country are involved. Supporters include the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave over a million to the project in 2012.
Then there’s the Walton Family Foundation, which is already a massive supporter of the EDF. Kresge, one of the largest climate resilience backers in the country, is another supporter of the competition, and gave half a million to the EDF toward the coast in 2012. Other smaller foundations backing Changing Course are the Selley Foundation and Blue Moon Fund.
It's also notable that Shell, (one of the companies being sued to pay for coastal degradation) is a funder of Changing Course, and with EDF and Walton involved, it's likely to be taking a more cooperative approach to dealing with the industry.
Support is, of course, not limited to Changing Course. Kresge, in fact, has given a number of other grants to New Orleans disaster recovery and work specifically on the Louisiana coast. The funder has given a number of six-figure grants to the cause, including $700,000 in 2012 to the Gulf Restoration Network to address “social and technical challenges to implementation of coastal restoration and flood protection in Louisiana.”
Another big funder active in the area is the McKnight Foundation, which is actually based in the Midwest, but has a program devoted to the health of the Mississippi River that has sent regular funding toward the delta.
One of McKnight’s most recent grants in the state sent $90,000 to the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development to build community support in New Orleans for coastal restoration programs. But McKnight has regularly given six-figure grants to the Gulf Restoration Network and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, two of the most active nonprofits on the issue.
It’s worth noting that another prominent Midwestern funder that's focused on freshwater, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, was formerly a regular funder of the same groups, but for the time being at least, has winnowed down its water giving down to just the Great Lakes. With the Master Plan making progress, you could see them jumping back in.
Then there a handful of foundations that are either smaller in size or are giving at lower levels, including Surdna Foundation based in New York, and the Blue Moon Fund mentioned above, which has a whole subprogram based on the Gulf Coast.
Finally, the other big philanthropic players in the cause are the key community foundations in the state — the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Although both organizations in some ways act as a conduit for other funds to support to the cause, they are both very active in coastal conservation in the state.
You can see there’s a decent amount of philanthropic activity happening in the coastal restoration, but to be honest, not as much as you might expect. Given the severity of the situation, you’d think more huge foundations would be pouring funds in that direction. Maybe in contrast to the disaster response and rebuilding following Katrina, the slo-mo nature of the coast's deterioration is less demanding of attention. Or maybe it doesn’t fit all that neatly into existing programs, not quite energy, not quite city sustainability, not quite conservation, kind of a design and engineering problem. Or maybe they just haven’t mobilized yet.
As the public/private funding battle continues and restoration activity starts to unfold, we’ll be eager to see if any more of the big guns train their sights on the Gulf Coast. And if there are other interesting programs unfolding that we haven't mentioned, let us know in comments.