It's the details -- from funding and federal cooperation to subsidence and land use policies -- that will be the sticking points for the state's emerging master plan for coastal restoration, hurricane protection and levee management. It's a mission largely lost on communities farther north, but there's an overriding fear that may draw their attention: As goes south Louisiana, so goes the rest of the state.
Earlier this month, various commissions and panels were presented with the latest version of the plan, which details dozens of marsh restoration projects, levee alignments and floodgates. While the price is a moving target, it's safely estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars over the next several decades. A series of public hearings were held around the state on the plan's contents, and engineers, hydrologists and social scientists have reviewed it as well. All offered advice on how to reduce future hurricane damage and reverse the trend of coastal erosion.
When lawmakers thumbed through the plan a few weeks ago during a committee meeting, many spoke out about projects in their region or voiced concerns about funding. Fewer seemed interested in the underlying themes being crafted by the meeting's speakers. Sydney Coffee, director of the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities, explained in no uncertain terms how important the master plan would be to coming generations.
An all-out war is about to break out, but Coffee's staff has already earned a solid reputation for getting things done. The Legislature will have to get on board with the plan, she says, and the federal government is next. Everything is at stake. Entire towns are literally being washed off the map and profitable industries are being pushed out. Louisiana as a whole will shrink financially and culturally if the plan falls flat. "The entire future of the state comes down to protecting our communities," she says. "We cannot allow special interests to break this apart."
It's not the first time the state has been presented with a blueprint for its coastline. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sank all previous efforts. In a move to rebrand this effort, designers and state officials have been using the phrase "ecosystem restoration" rather than "coastal restoration." Coffee says it reveals a broader approach than what Louisiana has taken in the past and represents the new philosophy of the state to fold together coastal restoration, hurricane protection and levee management.
The phrase also is indicative of a new industry being created in Louisiana, says Scott Angelle, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. The projects outlined in the master plan will break molds when it comes to science and construction, and Louisiana universities will work on the technology. The research is "charting new ground," Angelle adds, and could draw the nation's brightest to Louisiana to take part. Compared to the so-called "brain-drain" Louisiana has experienced with outmigration, he says, the new industry could be a "brain train" back into the state.
With this new approach, state officials also have taken care during public hearings to shy away from setting a total price tag, offering instead vague figures and wide ranges. That's probably because Louisiana's first coastal proposal, offered up several years ago, tallied roughly $14 billion and seared Washington, D.C., with sticker-shock. This time around won't be any different. In a recent phone interview, Coffee pegged the cost at nearly $50 billion over several generations.
As in the past, the state will count largely on federal money to implement the master plan. This arrangement traditionally has caused parishes in south Louisiana to fight over small pots of money, which is a process that favors parochialism and forces regional approaches to the background.
The new master plan, in theory, will not do this, Angelle says. The state may even put up its own recurring revenues for coastal work, which it has never done before in significant numbers. "We don't know what is in the executive budget, but we've been having conversations," Angelle says. Lawmakers will see the governor's proposed budget when the Legislature convenes April 30.
If funding weren't enough to worry about, another "master plan" is currently floating around, and it could end up competing with Louisiana's proposal. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release its own plan for Louisiana -- Congress only accepts plans from federal agencies -- in about a year, but it is six months behind schedule. "We're leading those planning efforts," says Coffee. But that doesn't mean Congress will review Louisiana's self-designed plan any time soon.
It's even possible that the Corps could ignore Louisiana's plan, Coffee adds, and include none of it in its presentation to Congress. Some officials hope the Corps will at least attach the Louisiana plan as an appendix. The Corps' plan will admittedly be more detailed, so Congress may want to see more of it. Ever upbeat, Coffee says she doesn't anticipate any major problems, but she is leaving room for the unforeseen. "Hopefully, it won't come down to choosing between two plans," she says.
Even if one of the plans makes it through the legislative process, there remains the issue of actually doing the work, says Jonathan Porthouse, project manager of the state's master plan. Louisiana will need to create new ways to buy easements, take land, separate mineral rights and regulate land use. "We can't say, 'No development in the coastal zone,' but we're going to have to consider some changes," he says.
Meanwhile, the regional subsidence issue -- yes, part of the state is sinking -- is still on the table, and some lawmakers have been critical of the lack of attention being given to barrier islands and coastal passes. Angelle admits DNR has not been aggressive on those two items.
Looking ahead, Coffee insists that nothing is set in concrete. "It's going to keep changing," she says. "Five years, 10 years, 20 years from now. There's no doubt in my mind."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- All of Louisiana will be hurt culturally and financially if coastal erosion continues to damage communities and industry in the southern part of the state.