03/05/2007 09:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans, Giant Alka Seltzer Tablet

In a three-day Times-Picayune series that started Sunday, my former colleagues Bob Marshall and Mark Schleifstein lay out one of the fundamental challenges facing New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. We already knew that the fragile, damaged Louisiana coastline was disappearing. But we didn't know how fast. And the answer is: really, really fast.

Land is dissolving into the Gulf of Mexico so quickly that unless major restoration projects get underway more or less now, the sinking coast may disappear altogether. That would be a multi-headed catastrophe - cultural, economic, ecological. The bayou country is a unique American resource. And losing it would also make it much harder to protect the city from hurricanes, large and small. Once marshes disappear and you get the Gulf lapping at your levees, you've already lost the battle.

Sadly and unsurprisingly, the major obstacles are not scientific or logistical, but entirely political and bureaucratic. Coastal restoration was held up for years by a lack of attention from Washington, conflicting agendas, and special interests from national property-rights advocates to oystermen. Post-Katrina, things have changed a bit - more money is coming online, for one. But just approving the necessary programs can take years.

Louisiana's predicament is an alarming lesson in today's head-in-the-sand approach not just to the marshes, but on the whole range of global issues - climate change, energy and water consumption, natural disasters: The world is changing fast, while government institutions resist, dither and plod. It will take national leadership to get out ahead of these problems. Presidential candidates, take note.