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Views Collide At Meeting On Louisiana's Coastal Plan

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This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Jan. 30, 2012 edition.

A New Orleans open house held by Louisiana's coastal restoration authority last week on a draft of the state's 2012 Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast drew mixed, earnest and sometimes vehement comments. Those living near the Gulf, where homes and entire communities have washed away, worried that the plan doesn't kick in fast enough. Fisheries proponents warned that diverting Mississippi River water and sediment to build marsh will kill oysters, shrimp and trout. But for their part, national organizations concerned about the coast tend to favor the plan as a step in the right direction and one that will procure funds.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority's Jan. 23 meeting at University of New Orleans more than filled the conference room, and was followed by similar gatherings in Houma and Lake Charles last week.

A draft of the master plan, released in early January, includes 145 projects to protect coastal communities and restore land at a cost of $50 billion over five decades. In opening remarks in New Orleans, CPRA chief planner Kirk Rhinehart said investing billions of dollars in the near term will prevent greater financial damage to communities and industry over the next 50 years. The state's planners predict that after 30 years, Louisiana might see a net gain in land for the first time since the 1930s.

The plan proposes new levees for densely populated, at-risk committees, like Laplace, Slidell, Houma, New Iberia, Morgan City and Lake Charles. Major levee systems in the greater New Orleans area will be supported and sustained. Mississippi River sediment and water will be used to rebuild land in the southeastern part of the state. And the state will manage the Atchafalaya River, which has been building delta recently, so that it keeps forming land. Barrier islands and ridges will be reconstructed on the central coast.

A comment period at the New Orleans meeting was a chance to react to the plan. Plaquemines Parish coastal director P.J. Hahn walked to the front of the room and said "we're a speed bump to other parishes" in Louisiana during big storms. As for the river, he said "we don't want large-scale diversions but are considering small diversions, and we want a dredge incorporated in the plan."

For several years, Plaquemines Parish has advocated pumping river sediment into marshes to build ridges for storm protection. The Mississippi runs down through the center of the parish, and sediment that builds in river bends can be mined.

Jefferson Parish President John Young said he's worried that the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex, an U.S. Army Corps project to protect southeast Louisiana, will pump additional water into Jean Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point--communities already vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. Young and Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner support a ring levee that would protect Lafitte from storm surges. Tim Kerner said "we've already waited too long," and added "we need 50-year, not 100-year storm protection," referring to the odds of a devastating hurricane. He said "if we can't get state help, we'll look to the federal government."

Grand Isle, La. Mayor David Camardelle said "we need to do some dredging" to create land and break up storm surges. He also said "we're at ground zero in Grand Isle." In a recent walk on the beach he saw tarballs, which he suspects were linked to the BP spill. He feels that BP money for restoration should be directed to areas hurt most by the spill.

State Senator A.G. Crowe said St. Tammany Parish is vulnerable to storm surge through the Rigolets straits. He recommended an approach adopted in Venice, Italy--known as the MOSE project--in which huge, submerged gates, activated by pumped air, emerge from surrounding lagoons to prevent high water from flooding the city.

John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said the state's current plan is a milestone in the restoration process. In the river-diversion versus marsh-creation debate, a mix of strategies are needed as the money is spread around. He said the science about how to save the coast isn't perfect, but we can't wait to act.

Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, said the role of the oil and gas industry in harming the coast had been stripped from the master plan. He asked why oil and gas companies besides BP aren't putting up money for coastal restoration. Several other commenters wondered the same thing.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, questioned whether scientific evidence supports the use of large-scale river diversions, and said reliance on computer programs had affected the plan's diversion recommendations. "The value of large diversions is not there," he said, and added "we're doing terribly" if the state uses river diversions to create land over 50 years.

Chris Macaluso, coastal coordinator with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, pointed to two places where land is building in the state--Wax Lake Delta and the Atchafalaya Delta, both near Morgan City. Wax Lake Delta land has grown in Atchafalaya Bay as an unexpected benefit of the Army Corps' diversion of the Atchafalaya River decades ago to keep Morgan City from being flooded. As for the Atchafalaya Delta, sediment from the river and the use of dredge material by the Army Corps are two of several factors that have helped land build there.

Macaluso said "we have wetlands because of the Mississippi River. That's why the fishing is so great here." Looking ahead, he said "the Mississippi River must be able to produce wetlands again."

Tulane University law professor Mark Davis said that the impact of climate change on the coast isn't considered in the master plan. He also said the plan needs to address water availability and the effects of projects on groundwater, agriculture and navigation.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, environmental justice organizer at the Sierra Club in New Orleans, said he hopes restoration of Bayou Bienvenue, spanning Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes, won't be overlooked. The way to see the dying wetlands is usually by boats or flyovers, he noted. But because Bayou Bienvenue is inside New Orleans it can be used to educate local residents and visitors from out of state about the wetlands.

George Howard, president of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh, N.C. firm, proposed letting companies and others compete or bid to restore land. He said a business can do much of the work needed to return an area to swamp or wetlands within 60 days--something that might take the government 25 years to do.

James Harris, supervisory wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said 150,000 acres of public land in the Bird's Foot Delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River could be affected by the coastal plan. If that area is lost, he hopes the authorities will dedicate other land near the coast to replace it.

At the meeting, a feeling among commenters living near the water was that they know more about what ails the coast than government employees looking at maps on their screens in Baton Rogue and Washington, DC. The public comment period on the draft plan--which is posted online at coastalmaster plan.la.gov.--ends on Feb. 25. The final plan will be submitted to the state legislature on March 26.

You may be wondering how this expensive, master plan will be financed. The Louisiana legislature set aside $367 million for levees and restoration projects from state budget surpluses in 2008 and 2009. And the state hopes to receive $267 million from early-restoration payments by BP for oil spill damage under the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. To date, BP has committed to an early restoration payment of $1 billion--of which $100 million is pledged to Louisiana.

And the state is counting on a piece of the estimated $10 billion to $21 billion in Clean Water Act Penalties that BP and parties responsible for the spill will owe. Funding will also come from appropriations authorized in the 2007 federal Water Resources Development Act for fifteen Louisiana Coastal Area restoration projects and from federal revenue sharing from deepwater oil wells. end

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