Crying Wolf on Louisiana’s Coast

Louisiana’s modified coast. Photo GRN (cc)The past week or so has been an interesting and confusing time to be an advocate for Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts. Interesting, because there have been a number of different votes at the state and federal levels dealing with efforts to protect and restore our coast and communities. Confusing, because the champions aren’t necessarily who you would expect them to be.The Louisiana legislature showed some strong leadership two weeks ago by unanimously passing the Coastal Master Plan into law, even though the success of the plan demands action on climate change, action which I’m confident would not have received the same uniform support. But then the Leg got back to their old tricks, and decided to intercept a couple of innocuous bills to direct any money that is generated by the ultimate passage of the RESTORE Act to fund said Coastal Master Plan (which is estimated to cost $50b for a 50 year effort). Blinded by dollar signs, the Louisiana Senate decided they needed to allow the legislature an option which would let them direct the RESTORE Act funds (from BP’s eventual Clean Water Act fines) to non-restoration purposes. Thankfully, this effort ultimately failed, but not before even the most tone deaf politicos felt compelled to weigh in on the conflicting message Louisiana was sending before RESTORE was even signed into law (see Congressman Steve Scalise’s statement here).Speaking of RESTORE, over 100 big shots from the Gulf signed a letter last week urging Congress to finalize the legislation. In an impressive bit of organizing, over 100 economic development voices from around the Gulf are singing the same song: RESTORE is important to the Gulf’s restoration and recovery. In a related note, GRN is reconsidering our support of any legislation which is supported by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Chamber of Commerce (kidding, kind of).But the most amazing coastal development this week came yesterday, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to a spending bill which would bar the Corps of Engineers from utilizing the wetlands mitigation methodology known as the “Modified Charleston Method” to protect and restore wetlands in Louisiana. If you’re not familiar with wetlands mitigation, the Clean Water Act requires developers to create wetlands or invest in wetlands mitigation banks if their projects destroy wetlands. Over the past six years, the Corps of Engineers which regulates these projects, has developed a new, more protective standard for wetlands permitting by working with Louisiana state partners. While much of the rest of the country has even more stringent mitigation requirements, the New Orleans Corps District weakened the Charleston Corps District’s approach and came up with this ‘new’ standard. While it sounds like a dance step, the Modified Charleston Method has quickly become the target of much ire throughout South Louisiana, blamed for stopping the development of a Rouses on the North Shore, and pointed to as a massive hurdle for developing the Morganza to the Gulf hurricane levee project. If those were the complaints, GRN would have still stuck up for the MCM, as we think wetlands are awfully important, and have significant concerns about developing them for shopping centers, and for huge cross-basin levee alignments. Of course, the affected parishes and the State goverment have long championed the Morganza to the Gulf levee project despite its significant impact to wetlands (those destroyed for the levee alignment, and likely those inside the levees which will be cut off from their coastal system). The Louisiana Legislature even directed $60 million to the project this session, even as they were looking to cut pensions and education funding. But then the complaints about MCM took a turn for the surreal.During last week’s America’s Energy Coast Leadership Forum in New Orleans, the America’s Wetlands Foundation hosted a panel focused on increasing community resiliency to storms and climate change which featured state, local and federal speakers. At that meeting, a number of different parish attendees voiced unspecified charges of coastal restoration projects failing to be approved by federal regulators because of the ‘new’ MCM. When pressed, none offered any specifics, but federal voices in attendance offered to sit down, have a conversation, and figure out what’s going on. The America’s Wetland Foundation then blasted around a press release touting the “breaking news” that “cookie cutter” regulations are hampering coastal protection and restoration projects. Still no specifics, on which restoration projects are being hampered.That release was then picked up by the Times-Picayune and turned into an editorial which makes some good points about the importance of protecting Louisiana from the worst-case scenerios of global warming fueled sea level rise. The TP goes on though to include this nugget:…Coastal officials complained that federal agencies are not granting permits for major restoration efforts. The agencies want local governments to pay for mitigation efforts, at a ratio of three times the damage caused by the restoration projects. That essentially treats projects to repair wetlands with the same parameters as commercial developments that take wetlands away. That needs reconsideration, since the express purpose of coastal restoration projects is to restore wetlands.I want to be clear: not a single coastal restoration project has been held up by the Corps requirement that projects which destroy wetlands must be adequately mitigated for, nor will they be. Restoration projects build wetlands, so they self-mitigate. Even if the only complaint about MCM was Morganza to the Gulf – it STILL doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t the state be willing to direct the mitigation resources to fund the ample coastal restoration needs within that basin? Applying the MCM would actually do more to implement the Coastal Master Plan while making the Morganza levees far more effective by following the coastal lines of defense approach to storm protection.Our state is losing an acre of wetlands every hour and clamoring for federal funds to implement a $50 billion plan to sustain our coast and its natural storm protection. It’s embarrassing, and ultimately harmful to those efforts, that Congressman Landry, the America’s Wetland Foundation, and other Louisiana ‘coastal leaders’ are vilifying regulations to protect wetlands.In fact, while Congressman Landry takes shots at the Federal Government, the White House has been consistently behind efforts to start up the major coastal restoration projects authorized in the Water Resources Development Act, passed by Congress in 2007. Despite the fact that Congress passed WRDA in 2007, they haven’t provided any funding for the projects in the bill, so the Louisiana Coastal Area Restoration Plan (LCA) has largely sat idle. Last week the White House backed a move by Congressmen Richmond (D-New Orleans) and Scalise (R-Metairie) to put funding for the LCA back in the bill. Thanks in part to the White House veto threat, the LCA recieved $10 million in ‘new start’ funding in the House.If large-scale restoration happens in Louisiana, I’m beginning to think it will be despite the best efforts of Louisiana’s ‘leadership’. Aaron Viles is GRN’s Deputy Director. You can follow him on twitter here.

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