Rep. Bill Cassidy looks out for Louisiana coastline
During a recent Agriculture Committee hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives, Louisiana’s U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy highlighted a new federal government program that he believes could help rebuild marshlands by distributing Mississippi River sediment throughout south Louisiana bayous.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the new initiative in September. It’s designed to improve water quality and the overall health of the Mississippi River Basin. The program will provide approximately $320 million over the next four years for voluntary projects in priority watersheds located in 12 key states in the river basin, including Louisiana. Participation in this initiative, which will be managed by the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), will be made available through a competitive process for potential partners at the local, state and national levels.
Rep. Cassidy’s questions at the committee hearing were focused on the need to improve coordination between agencies working on conservation issues as well as the need to “rethink” conservation programs in a way that helps Louisiana solve its land loss problems.
NRCS’ Dave White acknowledged that its new program had the potential to rebuild marshlands. White also acknowledged the need and commitment for federal agencies to work together on conservation issues.
Policy forum addresses National Environmental Policy Act opportunities
Is the National Environmental Policy Act, more commonly known as NEPA, a bureaucratic barrier to progress or a critical tool that often is used poorly?
America’s Energy Coast convened policy and scientific experts in Washington, D.C. last week to discuss breaking down bureaucratic barriers to creating a sustainable Gulf Coast, and the Policy Forum included a panel addressing implementation NEPA. Experts on the panel included the Texas General Land Office Director John Gillen, Port Fourchon Director Ted Falgout and National Wildlife Federation National Campaign Manager for Coastal Louisiana Restoration Karla Raettig.
NEPA requires that federal agencies consider the environmental impacts of proposed projects and identify alternatives that meet the project’s needs, which can delay project implementation. Some panel members noted that it is often difficult to get the necessary information from federal agencies to prepare an environmental assessment of hurricane recovery projects. Others raised concerns about NEPA delaying environmentally sound projects.
NEPA, however, is a procedural statute that was designed to lead to better and more transparent decision making that conforms with substantive laws like the Clean Water Act. “NEPA is intended to ensure informed decision making and does not require any certain outcomes,” Raettig said. "By drawing on the expertise of other agencies and the public, the NEPA process offers an opportunity to speed up projects and achieve a result that will meet the needs of various constituencies."
In response to other panel members’ recommendations that NEPA exclusions should be established for emergency situations, Raettig responded: “The Council on Environmental Quality can allow for alternative compliance during emergencies.”
With the White House Council on Environmental Quality leading the White House Interagency Working Group on Gulf Coast Restoration, establishment of a robust yet streamlined NEPA process should be on the agenda. The achievable goal should be to use NEPA to move coastal restoration and resiliency forward more quickly and more effectively, not water down substantive protections or lead to decisions made in the dark.
America’s Energy Coast is an initiative of America’s WETLAND Foundation.
Another study shows Mississippi River Delta land building is feasible
A new white paper finds that 700-1200 square kilometers (270-463 square miles) of new land could be built over a century in the Mississippi River Delta if the river’s levees were cut below New Orleans, allowing 45 percent of the water and sediment to flow out and build new deltas. This finding contradicts recent arguments that land building in the delta a lost cause because of sea level rise and the fact that dams reduce sediment supply in the river.
The paper, “Is It Feasible to Build New Land in the Mississippi River Delta?” was published in EOS Transactions of the American Geophysical Union paper and authored by University of Texas Department of Geological Sciences Assistant Professors Wonsuck Kim and David Mohrig, Louisiana State University Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences Professor Robert Twilley, University of Minnesota Department of Geology and Geophysics Professor Chris Paola, and University of Illinois Department of Geology Professor Gary Parker.
The authors calculate that if you diverted all the sediment in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers and included the organic sedimentation contribution, one quarter to one half of the Mississippi River Delta land loss estimated in recent studies (see footnotes below) could even be regained.
Barras, J., et al. (2003), Historic and predicted coastal Louisiana land changes: 1978–2050, Natl. Wetlands Res. Cent., U.S. Geol. Surv., Baton Rouge, La.
Blum, M. D., and H. H. Roberts (2009), Drowning of the Mississippi delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise, Nat. Geosci., 2, 488–491.
Breaking the "Levee Effect"
More than 65 years ago, the father of hazard research, Gilbert White, conceived the "Levee Effect." The theory is that levee construction induces development by giving local residents, businesses and governments a false sense of security about the flood risks that they face.
A recent Associated Press article on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' groundbreaking for the $1 billion West Closure Structure on the West Bank of New Orleans implies that, despite the recent painful lessons of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav, the “Levee Effect” still lingers with us.
The article highlighted local business interests who see the levee improvement as an opportunity for economic development and expansion, as well as risk experts who warn of increased vulnerability to floods.
The State Master Plan (SMP) recognized this issue, specifically stating: “Once a national and state commitment to building a levee is made, local governments must enforce appropriate land use and zoning regulations to ensure that the system, once built, contributes to the long-term sustainability of the region.”
The SMP's vision reflects and adopts a “multiple lines of defense” strategy. That is, the strongest and most reliable risk reduction plan combines levees and flood gates with robust evacuation plans, restoration of buffering wetlands, and storm resiliency measures like zoning and stormproofing of buildings.
West Bank residents deserve robust flood protection. Therefore, federal, state, and parish officials should collaborate to use all the flood risk reducing tools available, such as home elevation inside the levee and land use planning, to increase the level of risk reduction beyond that provided by levees and gates alone. Economic development can and should happen, but in a manner that incorporates risk reduction and doesn't put development in harm’s way. Doing otherwise increases the risk that the residents of the West Bank could fall victim to a defense system that has failed in the past.