Lack of funding threatens Louisiana's ambitious coastal plans

Lack of funding threatens Louisiana's ambitious coastal plans
Published: Nov. 17, 2015 at 8:28 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2015 at 2:31 PM CST
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Louisiana has crafted one of the most elaborate ecosystem restoration and storm protection plans in the world history, at least on paper.

However, a Tulane University report finds Louisiana lack tens of billions of dollars over the coming decades to make its Coastal Master Plan a reality.

In 2012, the state unveiled a $50 billion dollar, 50-year blueprint for restoring the coast.  Factoring inflation and maintenance into the picture, Tulane figures the actual cost runs more like $100 billion, while the state has secured only about $21 billion in reliable funding over the next 45 years.

"By no means can we say on the financial side that it's mission accomplished," said Dean Boyer, a research fellow and co-author of the report.

It is not as though Louisiana has done nothing.

Over the last decade, the state and federal governments have pumped enough sand and dirt to fill the Superdome-- from floor to ceiling-- more than five times, building up barrier islands and creating new marsh.

However, the Tulane report calculates the state has fallen short of the lofty goals laid out in 2012 when the plan was unveiled.

Boyer points out the state front-loaded the 2012 plan with an estimated $26 billion over the first 20 years.  "So, $1.3 billion a year and they have never come close to that," Boyer said.

Tulane says its report is not meant as a critique of the state's efforts.

However, the authors argue financing coastal projects has relied too heavily on catastrophe, such as the roughly $7 billion the state expects from the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

"That's almost like trying to fund your child's education off of an auto injury," said Mark Davis, Director the Tulane Institute of Water Resources Law and Policy.  "It may be part of the mix, but you never plan for it."

State officials in charge of the master plan argue there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the plan and its funding.

"We fully recognize that additional funding is needed to meet the objectives of the Coastal Master Plan," said Chip Kline, Chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in reacting to the Tulane report earlier this month.

"You don't fund the master plan, you fund individual projects included in the master plan," Kline said.

In the near term, the Jindal administration argues oil spill dollars provide a predictable funding source.

"Some Master Plan projects are 30 to 50 years down the road," Kline said.  "No one is going to give us money today for something that far in the future."

Critics concede the state is likely to find other sources of coastal dollars in coming decades, just as it has in the past.  However, they insist Louisiana lacks a reliable, long-term source of funding for coastal restoration and hurricane protection.

About half the state plan involving building islands, ridges, wetlands and other features.

The balance would go to levees and flood walls.

The state competes against a backlog of $60-$80 billion in water projects around the country, according to Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana.

"I would put our projects and the importance of our projects up against any of them," a former CPRA Chairman.

He believes Louisiana has some selling points, including the importance of its ports, rail lines and interstate highway systems to the rest of the country.

"There really is something for everyone here," said Graves, noting that liberal members of Congress can embrace plans for environmental restoration.

Things become a bit more dicey for conservative lawmakers staring at $19 trillion dollars in federal debt.

Graves notes Hurricane Katrina cost the government over $100 billion in recovery, rebuilding and protection costs.

The damage, he said, could have been prevented for a fraction of the cost.

"It's not a question of not being about to afford to spend money down here on these principled investments," Graves said.  "It's that you can't afford not to."

534 other members of the House and Senate each push their own pet projects, contributing to the water project backlog that stretches decades.

During a 2012 visit to St. John Parish in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, President Obama pledged help for Laplace and other flooded areas.

"What can we do to make sure it doesn't happen again?" the president asked, promising to expedite the decision-making process.

Three years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has advanced plans for a long-awaited levee protecting much of East St. John Parish.  However, congress must still sign off on the funding.

Graves says Congress needs to come up with some method to break the logjam holding up work, weeding out less important projects from those that truly deserve funding.

"How do you justify being stuck in a study process for 42 years?

Another Tulane report, expected to be released months from now, will attempt to start answering where to get the money.

"Anybody who believes theses dollars are guaranteed to us from somebody else lives on a different planet than I do," said Tulane's Mark Davis.

The authors hint they will suggest a variety of sources, mixing federal and state dollars and even public-private partnerships.

"We need creative approaches, we need new ideas about how to get this done," Boyer said.  "Otherwise, it's just a great plan with no implementation."