Changing coast, evolving coastal economy: The water management cluster in Southeast Louisiana in retrospect and prospect

Dr. Robert Habans

Published: Oct 04, 2019

Projections of sea level rise are increasingly ominous. It is an existential imperative that Southeast Louisiana emerge as a national leader in managing coastal land loss and flood risk. But doing so requires the intentional development of a specialized economic cluster. This brief identifies opportunities for strengthening the processes critical to building a cluster: sharing of resources and inputs to the production process, matching of workers and businesses to high-productivity opportunities, and learning in the form of specialized knowledge transfer and innovation. The timeframe for building the needed workforce and specialized knowledge base for the water management cluster is decades-long. But the time for Southeast Louisiana to capture “first mover” advantage is now.


In Southeast Louisiana, coastal land loss directly threatens frontline communities, undermines the natural buffer against storm surge that protects urban centers, and promises to shape the regional economy for decades. Large-scale investment programs in coastal restoration and protection, water management infrastructure, and “nonstructural” adaptation face the delicate task of preventing a worst-case scenario: severe, irreversible damage not only to the region’s environmental landscapes but also its economic and social fabric. At risk is the very viability of coastal communities and the long-term prospects of the region.

This brief revisits the question of how we define the water economy as a means to explore a more important question: How might the mechanisms that give rise to geographically clustered activities shape the region’s response to economic and environmental uncertainty? The analysis examines raw employment and earnings trends, the changing relative concentration of industries over time, measures of job growth net of national-industry trends, models of transactions between industries, and detailed contracting data from both the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to summarize recent trends and discuss the performance of the water management cluster within the context of activities required to facilitate its growth.

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Citations and sources can be found in the PDF copy of the report.