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Don't Halt Diversions

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The last thing Louisiana needs to do is halt coastal restoration efforts, yet a group that is charged with restoring wetlands recently proposed just that. The Breaux Act Task Force, which funds some of the state's coastal restoration projects, voted last week to close the West Bay diversion project in Plaquemines Parish unless a new source of funding is found to dredge anchorages that have been filling up with sediment because of the project. The task force committed to pay for dredging in 2009 — but it also approved $28.6 million to close the diversion if the dredging problem isn't resolved in three years.

The task force's decision sends the wrong signal, particularly if the state is going to be responsible for dredging costs associated with other restoration projects. The Governor's Office of Coastal Activities estimates that if dredging and maintenance costs are added to eight diversion projects approved by Congress, then the overall cost will skyrocket from $700 million to $4.9 billion. This year's state budget approved $300 million for coastal restoration, but making the state pay for dredging will quickly deplete that funding source. The answer is simple: The state shouldn't be solely responsible for dredging costs, especially when a federal agency bears a huge share of the responsibility for our vanishing coastline.

"[The task force's decision] is jaw-dropping because the Corps of Engineers received from Congress a mandate to restore coastal wetlands and treat the environment as a priority, just like navigation and flood control," says Paul Harrison, coastal Louisiana project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. The West Bay diversion is currently the state's largest project for diverting sediment-rich Mississippi River water into areas that have experienced decades of catastrophic wetland loss. The project was completed in 2003 and is forecast to produce 10,000 acres of new marsh by 2024. That's a relatively small patch of land in a state that loses 40 square miles of marshland annually, but it's a start. As those who live in the outlying parishes know, these projects are about survival — and time is of the essence.

"If we close this diversion, we're setting ourselves back by 20 years," says Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. The task force, also known as the Coastal Wetlands Planning and Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) task force, consists of five federal agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers. Nungesser feels the group simply followed the Corps' lead and voted to close the diversion if another entity doesn't pay for the dredging. "I'm not going to accept the Corps making a ridiculous decision just because they don't have money to dredge," says Nungesser. "Let's look for solutions."

We agree. The Corps' attempt to dodge financial responsibility for dredging is another example of its egregious indifference toward Louisiana's — and the nation's — environmental plight. Moreover, the Breaux Act was passed to create, protect and restore Louisiana's coastal wetlands — not improve navigation.

Garret Graves, director of the Governor's Office on Coastal Activities and a nonvoting member of the task force, says the state will pay for the dredging in the short term to keep the West Bay project going. He adds that the Corps should revisit the idea of balancing navigation, flood control and coastal restoration. Like Nungesser, Graves is interested in solutions, and the West Bay diversion is part of the solution to coastal wetland loss. Graves reports that the project produces 3.7 million tons of sediment a year — sediment that builds protective wetlands rather than clogs shipping channels, which the Corps otherwise would have to dredge. According to Harrison of the Environmental Defense Fund, when the Corps dredges a navigational channel, 80 percent of the material is either pumped or dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.

The diversion thus saves money, because it uses sediment productively rather than requiring expensive dredging to expel it from shipping channels and dump it into the Outer Continental Shelf. The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 directed the Corps to implement a program for the beneficial use of dredge material and authorized $100 million for the project. Is there anything more beneficial than using sediment to restore wetlands — while saving the federal treasury money on dredging? "If done properly, [diversion projects] benefit navigation and that is the whole point of an integrated coastal program," Graves says.

Graves is absolutely right. As soon as possible, the task force should reconsider and overturn its decision to shut down the West Bay diversion after 2009 and rededicate itself to finding a way to fulfill its primary mission — and the clear intent of the Breaux Act. In addition, the Corps of Engineers needs to recognize that coastal restoration, navigation and flood control are not mutually exclusive priorities, but necessary and integrated components of Louisiana's — and America's — economic, environmental and homeland security.


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