Making the Louisiana coast a priority: an editorial
By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune
October 25, 2009, 6:00AM
Nancy Sutley, the White House's point person on the environment, got an airboat-level view of Louisiana's eroding coastal marshes Tuesday. In a photo from Big Branch Refuge near Lacombe, the boat appears to be in open water, but there is a small strip of green marsh grass in the distance.
Louisianians who have fished and worked the coast for decades can point to broad expanses of water and describe the stands of trees and fields of grass that once grew there.
Byron Encalade, a fisher from East Pointe-a-la-Hache, talked recently about the dramatic loss of land. "I used to travel at night on my boat from St. Bernard all the way across the Mississippi line with only a compass, because we had landmarks we could navigate by," said Mr. Encalade, who fishes for oyster and shrimp. "You can't do that anymore. All the small islands, all the passes, they've all washed away."
Mr. Encalade said he wished that President Barack Obama would tour the marshes by boat during his stop in New Orleans a week and a half ago. That didn't happen, but Ms. Sutley and Jane Lubchenco, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, should take what they saw on their boat ride back to the White House.
Even before the airboat excursion, Ms. Sutley said she understood the urgent need for coastal restoration. Viewing the erosion first-hand surely reinforced that message.
Rusty Costanza / The Times-PicayuneWhite House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley speaks with Col. Al Lee, District Commander for the New Orleans District for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, during a visit to the Bayou Bienvenue Coastal Restoration Site in New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward on Thursday, October 15.The boat tour came a day after she, Ms. Lubchenco and several other Obama administration officials listened to three hours of testimony in New Orleans on developing an oceans policy. Most of the comments concerned Louisiana's coastal land loss. That is no doubt partly a reflection of where the meeting was held.
But it also is an indication of the importance of the issue to a broad range of people.
"The nation cannot continue to watch Louisiana disappear," said Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor for research at Louisiana State University and a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences.
"We have watched as our coast has disappeared," said Tracy Kuhns, who runs the coastal advocacy group Louisiana Bayoukeeper. "It's not just wetlands, it's not just a swamp out here. People live there. When we lose all that we lose our culture and our livelihoods."
That is crucial for the White House to understand. Ours is a working coastline, not a vacation-land dotted with high-priced condos. And the work that is done along our shores is vital to the U.S. economy. Ms. Sutley and Ms. Lubchenco no doubt saw fishing boats and oil and gas pipelines on their marsh trip last week. Our fisheries supply 40 percent of the seafood consumed nationally, and 34 percent of the country's natural gas supply and 29 percent of the crude oil comes through coastal Louisiana.
If nothing else, the federal government ought to help rebuild our coast out of a recognition of its immense economic value. In addition, restoring the state's protective marshland will help protect the government's investment in the region's recovery.
President Obama should remember, too, that South Louisiana has paid a price for oil and gas exploration. A federal Minerals Management Service study released recently found that oil and gas production has taken a significant toll on Gulf Coast wetlands and contributed to this state's land loss crisis. The report also pointed out that destruction caused by pipeline and navigation channel construction could be avoided or reduced by using the least damaging and most easily mitigated construction method.
The findings, which went unpublished for two years, bolster Louisiana's argument that the federal government ought to shoulder a greater share of coastal restoration costs.
For decades the federal government refused to give Louisiana a share of royalties from oil and gas harvested off our coast. Not until 2006 was the state's congressional delegation able to get Congress to pass a revenue-sharing bill -- and even then only on new wells. In the first decade, very little money is being realized for the state.
Louisiana will receive about $7 million this year, and that amount will stay between $7 million and $10 million per year until 2017. New federal Minerals Management Service estimates now conclude the state's share will only grow to between $100 million and $150 million a year, which is substantially less than predicted when Congress approved the revenue-sharing measure.
To help jumpstart restoration projects and pay for land needed for levee construction, the state has put up at least $800 million from its budget surpluses since 2007. That ought to signal Louisiana's commitment to the coast. Gov. Bobby Jindal said he used his time with President Obama to press for funding for the backlog of flood-protection projects that are ready to go and for which the state has already put up matching dollars. The state is hoping that the president will include $500 million to $1 billion in his next annual budget to pay for four major restoration projects.
The governor should continue to press the state's case.
Denise Reed, a coastal researcher at the University of New Orleans, described the situation well. "Louisiana is undoubtedly in a crisis, and we don't need short-term fixes, we need deliberative thinking about what the next century holds."
Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field in land area to erosion every 38 minutes, which leaves everyone here far more vulnerable to storms. That threat has a cost not only to us but to the nation.