Like putting land in the bank, coastal project relies on private - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports, Social

Like putting land in the bank, coastal project relies on private money

Marsh grass in a mitigation bank in New Orleans East  (John Snell) Marsh grass in a mitigation bank in New Orleans East (John Snell)
(WVUE) -

Near the easternmost point of New Orleans, Chef Highway snakes through a sliver of land that defends homes and businesses on both the north and south shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

While the New Orleans Land Bridge barely rises above sea level, it provides a critical level of natural protection.
 
"It's the only strip of land between basically the open Gulf and some of the major cities on the North Shore and New Orleans," said Matt Conn of the consulting company SEG Environmental.

On a 17,000-acre site near Chef Pass, crews have been piecing back together parts of this area of broken marsh.

Seven thousand acres of the site are eroding and subsiding into pockets of open water.

Since 2014, Ecosystem Investment Partners, the company that owns the land, has restored roughly 500 acres of that degraded marsh through dredging projects, sucking mud from off the shoreline and pumping it back onto land.

The most recent project converted 67 acres of open water into brackish marsh.

"It's really exciting to see how fast it comes back," said Adam Davis, a partner in the company and its director of Research, Policy and New Markets.

The project had its genesis in state and federal laws that require companies and individuals damaging a section of wetland to replace it.

For example, a developer who destroys five acres of wetlands to put up an apartment complex or retail site must build five acres of, essentially, the same type of wetland to the same standard the government would use.

While the law allows them to perform the work themselves, many people turn to mitigation banks.
 
Companies buy credits through mitigation banks, such as the one Ecosystem Investment Partners has created in New Orleans East, and allow the bank to perform the actual work.

"So, if you impact x amount of wetland over here, you need to create x amount of acres so that there's no net loss," Conn said.

On the surface, this would seem a zero-sum game.  Critics suggest Louisiana cannot destroy itself to restoration.

However, researchers are now studying the effects of a given restoration project on the land surrounding it.

"When a project like this, and other coastal restoration projects are conducted, there is a certain boundary, buffer zone around that project that if this project weren't done, the boundaries would be turning over to open water," said Steve Tullos, Entergy's Senior Manager of Environmental Strategy and Policy.

Entergy contributed $200,000 to research aimed at finding a way to quantify the loss to surrounding wetlands if the mitigation project had never taken place.

"It's been well documented that marshes play a huge role in protecting cities from storm surge," said Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice.

Proponents of mitigation efforts argue one of the benefits is speed, the ability to avoid long delays often associated with government work.

Even the BP settlement, which promises to deliver roughly $9 billion for Louisiana coastal restoration and hurricane protection efforts, will trickle in over a number of years.

"These dollars are available today," Davis said.  "You don't have to wait for 15 years of money to come in BP."

Doing projects today cuts down the cost, Davis pointed out, since it takes less money to restore a tract of land when less of it has eroded.  

"I don't know the answer to how many acres or how many dollars will come," Davis said.  "But I think it's pretty clear by now that public sector encouraging private investment in this will lead to some pretty exciting results."

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