Louisiana coastal parishes demand a surge in dollars for projects

Published: Jul. 24, 2014 at 2:05 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 17, 2014 at 11:39 PM CDT
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Visitors to Holly Beach in Cameron Parish (John Snell)
Visitors to Holly Beach in Cameron Parish (John Snell)

Near the extreme southwestern corner of Louisiana, life is defined by a series of names.

"Audrey, I think in '57 was the last to destroy it, then came Rita and then came Ike," said Mike Bott, reciting the list of devastating hurricanes to plow through this seaside community of Holly Beach.

Bott, who owns one of the trailers that dot this town of a few hundred people, plans to build a house and retire here.

"There's a lot of people that have written it off," Bott said.

He refuses to give up on the beach, and is ecstatic that the state recently packed $45 million worth of new sand just east of town.

The sand, dredged from offshore, restores part of the beach that has been surrendering 45-60 feet of shore to the Gulf of Mexico annually.

That rate of land loss is mirrored 30 miles to the east at the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge.

While Louisiana may not be known as a beach getaway drawing masses of summer vacationers, its beaches serve as important lines of defense for inland marshes and coastal communities. Losing the beach would produce an inevitable domino effect of lost marsh, shredded ridges, and a salt water invasion damaging fresh water fisheries and crawfish farming.

"We can protect it for millions or we'll have to rebuild it for billions," said Scooter Trosclair, the Rockefeller Refuge Program Manager.

Trosclair has tried for years to pry $28 million from the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration task force, a group made up of federal and state agencies that have funded more than 150 coastal wetlands restoration projects since 1990.

Six years ago, as part of a demonstration project, Rockefeller managers installed a series of breakwaters just offshore to cut down on wave action.

During a recent boat tour, Trosclair eagerly showed off both the breakwaters that succeeded and those that failed miserably.

"You can see there's no vegetation behind this one," said Trosclair, pointing to a breakwater that sank into the Gulf under the weight of the rocks.

Just a half-mile away, they wrapped the heavy rocks around a lighter, aggregate material to cut down on the weight. As the wave action decreased, Trosclair explained the soil stabilized and land began to build along the shoreline.

"It was just a mudflat," Trosclair said. "Now, you're seeing buildup."

The CWPPRA task force will decide which projects to fund this December.

"It's a lot of money, but we look at the benefits on the other side of the amount of land that will be protected."

In southwestern coastal parishes, there is a general sense of being left out of the mix as billions of dollars flowed to Southeast Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draft report includes close to $1 billion for coastal projects, but no levees. Instead, the Southwest Coastal Louisiana Feasibility study would rely on mitigation measures, such as raising structures.

"They're going to put this study out and basically tell us that we get nothing and 'go back home,'" said Nedra Davis, Executive Director of Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority.

State lawmakers created the authority in response to complaints about a perceived lack of coastal protection projects in Calcasieu, Cameron and Vermillion Parishes.

"Putting in one system that protected everybody came at a high expense," said Tim Axtman, a Corps senior planner.

Federal law requires the Corps to weigh the benefits of levees, flood walls and other structures against the cost.

Even if the Corps had scored the proposed levees higher, tight budgets have made it difficult to wrestle the money from a Congress already dealing with a backlog of billions of dollars in water projects.

Axtman said, in analyzing proposed flood protection, planners drive for "the thing that's most likely to result in something actually being acted on."

The new coastal authority is designed to provide a squeaky wheel for parishes that lost proposed coastal projects to other areas when the state finalized its Coastal Master Plan in 2012.

"The southwest coast up to this point has not had a voice at the table for the state coastal protection," Davis said.

Back on Holly Beach, Mike Bott plans to start construction on his new home in coming months.

"Right after hurricane season," Bott said, laughing. "We're going try to do it a little smarter."

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