1 Year After Katrina, Government Gets D+ Grade for Efforts to Restore Louisiana’s Natural Hurricane Buffer: Wetlands

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 28, 20061 Year After Katrina, Government Gets D+ Grade for Efforts to Restore Louisiana’s Natural Hurricane Buffer: WetlandsReport Warns “Louisiana Communities Cannot Survive” Unless Wetland Losses are Reversed;Recommends Closing MRGO, Using Oil Revenues to Restore Wetlands and Protect LouisianaNew Orleans ” Five national and Louisiana environmental groups today issued a report card giving the federal and state government a combined D+ grade for their efforts to protect and restore Louisiana’s natural hurricane buffer – its disappearing wetlands – and warning that unless this trend is reversed, the communities of Louisiana cannot survive. Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are by far the largest and most important coastal ecosystem in North America, but over the past century about 2,000 of the original 7,000 square miles of coastal marsh and swamp forests that formed the coastal delta of the Mississippi River have disappeared, an area larger than Delaware (see map of land loss from 1932-2000 at http://www.lacoast.gov/maps/2004SElandloss/index.htm).The report, “One Year After Katrina, Louisiana Still a Sitting Duck: A Report Card and Roadmap on Wetlands Restoration,” is authored by Environmental Defense, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the National Wildlife Federation, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.”Hurricanes Katrina and Rita revealed ” more than ever ” the relationship between wetland loss and storm damage, and thus the critical importance of coastal wetland restoration,” said Jim Tripp, general counsel of Environmental Defense and a member of the Louisiana Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation. “Wetlands restoration is just as important to protecting populated areas and the nation’s oil, gas and navigation infrastructure as is repairing levees, yet the amount dedicated to restoring the wetlands as a hurricane buffer in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita”$115 million”is nearly 60 times less than the $6.7 billion dedicated to levee repairs, restoration, improvement and expansion.””The construction of navigation canals, such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and thousands of miles of oil and gas pipeline and equipment canals, accelerated the degradation of wetlands and created a path for saltwater to intrude and kill off salt-sensitive marsh vegetation,” said Mark Ford, PhD, a wetland ecologist and deputy director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to follow Congress’ order to develop a plan to deauthorize deep-draft navigation of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet – which acted as a storm surge superhighway during Katrina – and instead is continuing to focus on mediating between competing interest groups.”The report ranks congressional, federal agency, Army Corps of Engineers, and state efforts in five categories:Funding Wetlands Restoration (35% of overall grade): D-U.S. Congress: DU.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service: D-Louisiana: A so far, but incompleteAccelerating Wetlands Restoration Implementation (25% of overall grade): C-U.S. Congress: CU.S. Army Corps of Engineers: D-Louisiana: C+ so far, but incompleteClosing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and Restore Related Wetlands (15% of overall grade): B-U.S. Congress: BU.S. Army Corps of Engineers: C-Louisiana: IncompleteConserving existing wetland resources (15% of overall grade): CU.S. Army Corps of Engineers: DLouisiana: BPublic Support (10% of overall grade): AThe report concludes that Congress, federal agencies and the state could restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, protect New Orleans from another Katrina disaster and graduate with an A grade by taking the following steps:The Corps must do much better and it’s time for special attention from its boss: Congress.The Corps’ miserable first attempt at the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Program study was an utter failure”resulting only in a plan to build a levee or series of levees across the entire state. The Corps needs to start from scratch. Congress should hold hearings to make sure it does so.The Corps must ask for help from private experts. It should hold a design competition for major ecosystem restoration projects such as the proposed East Atchafalaya Restoration spillway. Similarly, the Corps should rely on an outside review panel made up of distinguished engineers and other coastal experts in its Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) study process. Congress should issue clear direction to the Corps supporting the use of outside experts and hold hearings to review progress. Congress should also hold hearings before the MRGO study is released to make certain the Corps got the message to close MRGO to deep-draft navigation. Congress needs to pledge support, and back it up. Congress should pass legislation committing to the restoration of coastal Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier islands, with all necessary projects funded and constructed within ten years. Such legislation should include impact assistance payments made from existing and future drilling revenues from off shore drilling in federal waters (i.e., at least three miles off the Gulf coast). But Congress should abandon efforts to revenue share with states whose coastal areas are not impacted by oil drilling.The state must keep its eye on the ball. While state efforts so far have been admirable, it must keep up the good work by making sure that the Coastal Impact Assistance Program it is developing focuses on large, systematic projects and not small, locally appealing but unsustainable projects.”The most important ingredient to the ultimate success of the efforts to save coastal Louisiana is public understanding and support for bold and effective action,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “Time and again, people from all walks of life in Louisiana and across the nation have shown that they understand the importance of committing to the conservation and restoration of coastal Louisiana as part of an investment in their heritage and their future.””Given the economic importance of this extraordinary delta and its unique urban communities, especially New Orleans, we had reason to expect a clear commitment to its restoration,” said Susan Kaderka, gulf coast regional director for the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the Louisiana Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation. “Sadly, the nation has not risen to the challenge so far.””Unless Louisiana’s losses are reversed, the communities of Louisiana cannot survive, the navigation and oil and gas infrastructure of south Louisiana will face increasing risk, nationally important fisheries supported by the Mississippi Delta will suffer and the ecological value of one of the world’s great deltas will continue to decline,” said Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.Download the full report as a pdf here.###

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