$100 million victory for the Louisiana coast
The highlight of the recent Coastal Day at the Louisiana legislature was an appearance by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The governor thanked those in the room—about 50 representatives of nearly a dozen environmental organizations and local agencies—for working the week before to defeat, by a wide margin, an amendment in the Louisiana House that would have sidetracked $100 million dollars of surplus funds away from coastal restoration to roads. He stressed the economic importance of the coast to the rest of the state, saying “if we can’t live down here, nothing else matters.” Our groups will continue to track the surplus funding bill, which still needs to pass the state Senate.
In related Baton Rouge news, important legislation to consolidate Louisiana's restoration and hurricane protection authoritites and staff under one office has passed both houses and is awaiting reconciliation (also known as concurrence). View HB833.
A better future for the Atchafalaya
National and local environmental groups have formed a coalition to advance better management of the Atchafalaya River basin, the largest contiguous bottomland hardwood forest and swamp in the United States—an area larger than the Florida Everglades. The goal is to foster agreement between scientists, stakeholders, and the state on how to best protect and restore this diverse area for the benefit of wildlife, habitats and people. Some of the initial work involves the use of computer models to assess different options for managing water flows and sediment in the basin.
Recently, the coalition negotiated a compromise for the state’s Coastal Forest Conservation Initiative to provide strategic forests with permanent protection instead of 30-year easements. Environmental groups will continue to work with forestland owners who are not interested in granting permanent easements. “We are excited that our coalition is bringing grassroots concerns together with science to guide management of this critical area,” says Karen Westphal, the National Audubon Society's Atchafalaya Basin Program Manager.
To get local-scale restoration started immediately, Audubon has contracted with a private company to build a versatile, portable dredge that can be used to restore smaller tracts of marsh in hard-to-reach areas. Audubon will begin restoring marsh at its own Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Santuary in Vermillion Parish this fall and will hold workshops to get the technology into the hands of neighboring landowners.
“We can use this new technology to keep some areas more ‘wet and wild’ now, while working to promote larger-scale restoration as soon as possible," says Melanie Driscoll, National Audubon Society's Director of Bird Conservation in Louisiana.
Rally for restoration
On June 1, the first day of the 2009 hurricane season, nearly 150 local residents, community leaders, elected officials, and national and local environmental organizations gathered
on the Central Wetlands cypress triangle platform in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. They used a solar-powered sound system to speak out for restoring wetlands along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the little used shipping channel that funneled Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge into the heart of the community.
In 2007, the U.S. Congress passed legislation directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a plan for restoring the wetlands along the MRGO by May 2008. The Corps has not yet complied. It says it aims to finalize a plan by late 2010 or early 2011.
“Yes, levees can be built. Yes, pumps can have backup generators. But the most sustainable solution is to restore our wetlands. Not only for St. Bernard Parish and for New Orleans, but for Louisiana,” said local Councilmember Cynthia Willard-Lewis.
Oystermen discuss restoration
Coastal Louisiana produces more than half of the nation’s oysters. But as coastal wetlands where oysters thrive have disappeared, Louisiana’s oystermen have moved further and further inland. Diverting water and sediment from the Mississippi to rebuild the coastal Louisiana deltaic wetlands will help restore oyster fisheries in the long-run, but in the short-term it could impact some oyster beds. This has made coastal restoration contentious—and litigious.
Now the state is working with oyster fishermen to rebuild the coast in ways that protect the $300 million annual fishery. Members of the Oystermen’s Association and other experts addressed the Governor’s Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation at its May meeting. The Association called for lifting a 2002 moratorium on new oyster leasing so that restoration projects can proceed and oyster leaseholders can move as water conditions change.
“Coastal restoration will necessarily bring change to coastal Louisiana,” said Jim Tripp, general counsel for Environmental Defense Fund. “It may impact individual oyster beds, but the long term sustainability of Louisiana as one of the world’s oyster nurseries is absolutely dependent on a vitally functioning coastal ecosystem.”
The Governor's Commission is expected to continue discussing the oyster issue, among others, at its June 30 meeting.
Making headway on federal appropriations
After working for several weeks with the State of Louisiana and others to identify the need and capacity for projects to reverse land loss and rebuild wetlands and marshland in coastal Louisiana, the coalition’s policy team in Washington D.C. is making headway in defining appropriations needs for these projects and making sure that Congress and the Obama Administration understand their importance.
Action on 2010 Energy and Water appropriations bills is expected soon and congressional champions of coastal Louisiana restoration projects are weighing in with committees in writing and in person.
The coalition’s primary appropriations goal is for funds to go directly to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction on key priority projects, including use of dredge materials and medium-scale water and sediment diversions from Bayou LaFourche, Myrtle Grove and the Hope Canal. Additionally, the coalition is seeking a mandate for the Corps to move quickly on these and other projects.
Louisiana lawmakers study world-class water management
During the last week of May, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and other officials went on a fact finding trip
to to study the world-class water management and flood protection system in the Netherlands, a country which shares many of Louisiana's challenges in protecting populations and economic infrastructure below sea level.
Over four days the group visited several sites including The Hague, Rotterdam, Delft and Kampessites. Knowledge gained will benefit Louisiana’s coastal restoration, benefiting its communities, businesses and wildlife.
“We need to ensure the Army Corps of Engineers can build projects more efficiently in our region and local governments have a more significant role in creating the framework for our local projects,” said Senator Landrieu. “We will continue working this week to find ways to help Louisiana overcome our remaining challenges to living effectively with water."
Senator Landrieu reiterated her intentions at the June 16th U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in Washington and received statements of support from Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and member Senator Stewart Udall (D-NM).
Great Waters Restoration Coalition launches
On June 10-12, over 100 leaders in restoration initiatives from around the country gathered in New Orleans to launch the Great Waters Restoration Coalition. Attendees included those involved in restoration efforts in the Puget Sound, California, the Great Lakes, Gulf of Maine, the Upper Mississippi, Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades, and Coastal Louisiana.
During a plenary session on the morning of June 11, John Austin, Don Boesch, and Bill Leary built the case that the time is now for such a coalition because of the economic, scientific, and political landscape. In the afternoon break out sessions, participants discussed the vision and mission of the coalition with specific ideas of policy areas that the group could work on.
The Summit concluded with a presentation of a draft framework and the creation of four committees--governance, fundraising, agenda setting, and messaging--which will report back by Aug. 1 so that the Great Waters Restoration Coalition becomes a reality.