03/20/2012 06:37 pm ET Updated May 18, 2012

Focus on Coastal Restoration Not Retreat, Louisiana's Senator Landrieu Says

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the March 19, 2012 issue.)

Louisiana needs to get smart quickly about coastal restoration, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu said in her hometown of New Orleans last week. The state has funds for the coast but also needs money from the RESTORE Act, which was approved by the U.S. Senate this month and awaits a House of Representatives decision. The Act would steer 80 percent of federal, spill-related penalties, expected to be levied against BP, to five Gulf states. Landrieu, a Democrat, said those penalties should be between $5 billion and $20 billion.

She spoke at a 2012 Water Challenge on March 12 during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.

Greater New Orleans has paid dearly for ignoring the water in its midst, Landrieu said. Traditionally, Crescent City dwellers lived on ridges surrounded by water, but during white flight and suburbanization people moved to areas more vulnerable to flooding. "You learn painful lessons when you forget where you live," she said, noting that 1,800 people died, many from drowning, after levees were breached in 52 places during Katrina.

An area the size of Rhode Island has vanished in south Louisiana in half a century. "I tell my colleagues in the Senate that we've lost an area equivalent to a whole state," she said. "And they ask me 'why do you people live there anyway?' After Katrina, a lot of Washington politicians thought that we should retreat from the coast."

Landrieu rejects suggestions that residents move away from the coast. She has led three delegations to the Netherlands, where she said "60 percent of the country is below sea level, they're backed up against the North Sea and have no place to move. But everyone's feet stay dry and they're protected against storms."

Old ways of dealing with coastal issues in Louisiana are no longer viable, Landrieu said. "We can't just build a string of levees. We need to re-engineer our plans and set our sights much higher. We have to understand the flows of our rivers, lakes and bayous, and we have to get smart really fast." Climate change has to be addressed.

She said post-Katrina rebuilding will be for naught if the region is unprotected. "We're spending $1.8 billion of federal money to rebuild a hundred schools in New Orleans. But they won't survive if we don't get the water right."

She told the audience that "part of entrepreneurship is remembering where you live." Louisiana will have to think its way out of coastal problems because retreating from the coastline isn't an option. She asked "what would we do? Move to Baton Rouge, then to Alexandria and then up to Shreveport?"

Funds are available now for restoration, with more coming. "We can do our coastal research, we have the money but we need the political will," she said. "I continue to work with the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and will work with anyone. From what we learn, we can assist low-lying countries around the world. But we have to pass the RESTORE Act to help us with this."

Landrieu, along with the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority or CPRA and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, helped form The Water Institute of the Gulf--a new organization in Baton Rouge for applied coastal research.

Though Landrieu didn't delve into funding specifics, the restoration-money math in Louisiana is promising. CPRA has drawn up a $50 billion, 50-year master plan to restore the Gulf. The plan is to be funded from 2008 and 2009 state budget surpluses; 2007 federal Water Resources Development Act appropriations; Natural Resource Damage Assessment funds associated with the BP spill; expected BP penalties under the Clean Water Act; and eventual revenue from leasing the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas development.

Landrieu noted that the federal government is spending $14 billion to rebuild levees in and around New Orleans. "But St. Charles Parish is unprotected and so are parts of Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes," she said. "We need another couple of billion dollars to get the rest of it done."

Residents of uptown New Orleans, which she called the "isle of denial," may be unaware that neighbors in other areas remain unprotected, Landrieu said. A stretch of high levees has shielded Uptowners living near the Mississippi River.

For a long time, New Orleanians were out of touch with the water around them, Landrieu said. She recalls "in the 1970s, my father, Moon, didn't have much time, so he took us in the car on his weekend rounds, while smoking a cigar. We went to the French Quarter to Cafe du Monde, which is next to a flood wall so you can't see the levee. My dad called the Public Works Department and they brought a ladder and put it up against the wall. Soon a line of people were waiting to climb up and look at the river."

She continued, saying "later, he put the steps up to the river across from Jackson Square, and the Moon Walk was named after him." Moon Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978, and in his term the French Quarter's river promenade was built. She noted that her younger brother, today's Mayor Mitch Landrieu, has to grapple with levee protection and coastal erosion.

Senator Landrieu said awareness of the water around us is an important step in solving coastal issues, but added "there are children living in New Orleans now who have never seen Lake Pontchartrain."

She said Louisiana is far more than its image of swamp and gun people, referring to two current reality TV shows "Swamp People" and "Sons of Guns" that take place in south Louisiana and Baton Rouge, respectively.

And she discussed the importance of the state to the national economy. "We've been supplying oil and gas to the rest of the country since the drilling of the Creole Well in the 1940s. "We're helping to keep the lights on in New York. But we've received zero in revenues from drilling three miles or more offshore." That will change in 2017, however, when federal revenue-sharing for offshore oil and gas production is due to start. Landrieu noted that much of the seafood from Louisiana's oystermen and fishers is sent out of state. Louisiana provides nearly a quarter of the domestically produced seafood in the lower 48 states.

When asked about jobs on the coast by an audience member, Landrieu said "we're trying to make sure that local contractors have access to coastal restoration work."

The 2012 Water Challenge at the BioInnovation Center, where Landrieu spoke, is an initiative by The Idea Village and the Greater New Orleans Foundation to nurture entrepreneurs working on water industry ventures. New Orleans-based Tierra Resources won $50,000 at last week's event in a competition with two other start-ups--Bayou Native and Aquaponic Modular Production Systems--to find water-management solutions. Tierra Resources plans to measure carbon absorption by Mississippi Delta wetlands to support carbon credits for restoration. Businesses that want to offset carbon dioxide emissions could do so by paying for wetlands restoration.

New Orleans Entrepreneur Week ran from March 10 to 16, and was sponsored by The Idea Village, other non-profits, businesses, universities and city and state government. end