Conflicting policies have stalled coastline restoration, leaders say

Conflicting policies have stalled coastline restoration, leaders say
July 30, 2009
by Jen DeGregorio
The Times-Picayune/

Some of Louisiana's most influential scientists and business leaders on Thursday told the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division that conflicting government policies have stalled the movement to rebuild Louisiana's vanishing coastline.

Gathered in Biloxi for a conference of America's Wetland Foundation, the group asked Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh and officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minerals Management Service and Department of Transportation to review regulations that are preventing coastal-restoration projects from moving forward.

One example is a federal program that is supposed to share profits from offshore oil and gas production with states. But the Coastal Impact Assistance Program has not delivered money in a timely fashion, according to a report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall, which was presented Thursday.

"Large-scale restoration can be complicated by programs failing to deliver significant results due to cubmersome and protracted funding processes," the report said.

Hall also pointed to the dual missions of the Army Corps, which oversees shipping navigation as well as the construction of coastal-restoration projects, which often affect navigation. While the Corps must maintain shipping channels such as the Mississippi River by dredging them, internal accounting rules often prevent the agency from redepositing the sediment in patchy areas along the coast, a process called "beneficial use of dredged material."

The Corps makes "beneficial use" of only about 12 percent of the 60 million tons of dirt it dredges from the river each year.

"Without moving forward on at least some of these conflicting policies we will not make any progress," said Jody Henneke, an official with the Texas General Land Office.

Henneke works with Louisianans -- including Port Fourchon Director Ted Falgout and University of New Orleans scientist Denise Reed, among others -- on a wetland foundation initiative called America's Energy Coast.

Formed after Hurricane Katrina to raise awareness about coastal erosion in Louisiana, the foundation draws members from the business, government and academic sectors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the states that comprise the so-called "energy coast."

The process of restoring coastal Louisiana -- which by some estimates loses the equivalent of a football field of land every half hour -- is a hugely expensive undertaking, requiring tens of billions of dollars. And America's Wetland Foundation tries to call attention to Louisiana's role as a hub for shipping and oil and natural gas production, which make the survival of the coast an issue of national significance. The group is also partially funded by oil industry giant Shell.

Although the foundation does not like to use the term "lobbying" to describe its role, the group has supported several initiatives that it believes will further coastal restoration efforts. Senior advisor Sidney Coffee said the group intends to forward its policy goals to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Along with Thursday's "resolution" to urge government agencies to streamline their operations, the foundation also passed a resolution to request that the federal government make better use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The fund was created to pay for navigation-maintenance projects, such as dredging. But Congress has hardly tapped the fund.

"Put very simply, it's just not being used for what it was intended," said Raymond Butler, director of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, a group that represents the barge industry.

Reed, of UNO, succeeded in adding to the resolution a request that money from the fund also go to help the Corps increase its beneficial use of dredged material.

A third resolution on Thursday attempted to draw attention to the people that populate the coast, particularly tribal cultures and commercial fishing communities.

Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach urged the group to not "lose sight of the fact that we're talking about people" in the pursuit of rebuilding Louisiana's coastline.
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