Coastal Resuscitation on NOLA- A plan that never got funding

Before 2004 the Times Picayune had a series on the then potential disaster and ways to avoid it. GOP killed most of the plans -- law

Coastal Resuscitation

An ambitious 30-year plan would pump new life into south Louisiana's beleaguered coast and wetlands. It may be the region's best hope for weathering major storms.

By Mark Schleifstein
Staff writer

After decades of division over who and what are most responsible for Louisiana's dissolving coastline, state officials, environmentalists, business leaders and scientists have found common ground on what they think it will take to fix the problem.

The often-combative factions are rallying around something called Coast 2050, a $14 billion, 30-year wish list of flood-control, water-diversion and coastal-restoration programs that would be the largest construction project ever undertaken. The plan is aimed at re-creating a historic mix of swamp, marshland and barrier islands by unleashing some of the natural forces that had been bottled up by levees and other flood-control projects in the past century.

That should restore some of the region's natural storm protections, scientists say, reducing inland flooding and wind damage from tropical storms and weaker hurricanes that have become common events in south Louisiana in recent years.

"In the New Orleans area, if all the Coast 2050 strategies are implemented, you stand a pretty good chance of returning to a level of protection similar to 40 years ago," said Denise Reed, a professor of coastal geomorphology at the University of New Orleans.

But even with united local support, the scope of the proposal means the next phase of the battle will be fought over federal dollars in Congress, where the outcome is anything but assured.

The state would like to tap into the process Florida established in 2000 when it got congressional approval for an $8 billion plan to restore fresh-water flow in the Everglades.

But Florida had several key advantages in the political arena, including 12 million more people and 16 more electoral votes in presidential elections than Louisiana. With a $50 billion annual operating budget, Florida also expects to be able to contribute half the costs of the program. Louisiana, with a state budget of $16 billion, would have a much harder time kicking in a substantial share.

Florida also sold its plan during times of budget surpluses and a soaring stock market, while Louisiana is lobbying in an era of deficits and during an expensive war on terrorism.

It's a struggle, but Louisiana leaders hope they can make a case for Coast 2050 based on the straightforward argument that the sinking landscape is a direct threat to people, commercial interests, the environment and the economy -- including key fisheries and oil and gas production with national significance.

The battered coast and disappearing wetlands expose about 2 million south Louisiana residents, billions of dollars in property and key industries to increased flooding and damage from hurricanes, storms and even high tides. Officials fear the nation's energy flow could be disrupted if a hurricane takes out major pipelines or transfer facilities.

U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, says that should be reason enough for federal help.

"When you consider our contribution to national energy security, when we're finding out how risky it is to trust foreign sources of oil and gas, I'm not sure this is a bad time to make that argument," Tauzin said.

"If the nation continues to rely on Louisiana as the place for so much of the nation's energy requirements, the nation can't forsake our coastline at the same time," he said.

Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, recently asked a subcommittee to create a task force comprising high-ranking officials of a variety of federal departments to oversee the wetlands-restoration plan.

But Congress already has rejected legislation that would have provided the state with money to use as its share of the construction projects.

When Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., proposed her Conservation and Reinvestment Act in 1998 to divvy up offshore oil revenue among states directly affected by offshore production, Louisiana would have gotten the lion's share of the money. State officials made it clear they would use most of Louisiana's share as its match for coastal-restoration projects.

The House approved a version of the bill in 2001, but it died in the Senate. Instead, Congress approved a one-year, diluted version aimed largely at financing parks and recreation.

Meanwhile, Tauzin and other members of the congressional delegation have been focusing on reshaping Coast 2050 within the confines of the federal Water Resources Development Act, the vehicle used by Florida to authorize its Everglades-restoration efforts.

Projects included in the water bill are guaranteed a line in the president's budget each year, but not the actual dollars necessary to build them.

In 2004, after a broad-based environmental impact statement is complete, the delegation will return to request authorization for the entire plan. With the authorization in hand, members of the Louisiana delegation say, the fight over money for the federal share of individual projects will begin in earnest.

"If we're successful in obtaining federal authorization in 2004 and if the state can succeed in trying to find the additional revenue necessary to be an effective cost-sharing partner, we can stay ahead of some of the wetland losses and have a pretty good chance of eventually developing a sustainable coastal system," said Randy Hanchey, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources

NOLA.com: Hurricane Center


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