The Fifth Season: Agency working to keep Louisiana coast from vanishing

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana was most likely the last state formed many, many years ago. And the lifeblood for coastal creation is the invaluable sediment contained in the mighty Mississippi River.

But that lifeblood has been robbed from the state, as explained by U.S. Representative for Louisiana Garret Graves.

"The majority of land loss that we have experienced, that we are experiencing, that we will experience is actually the federal government's fault," Graves said.

Following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the federal government funneled the Mississippi River through a system of levees that essentially cut off the state from its land-building capabilities. With the constant assault of rising sea levels, tropical cyclones and man-made disasters like the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill, our coast is vanishing.

But Louisiana is not sitting idly by.

"We have a plan that is going to require 50 years and 50 billion dollars in order to restore the coast because that is the buffer from hurricanes and storms in order to reduce that storm surge so it doesn't lap at the levees protecting our major cities and population centers and infrastructure," Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said.

The plan Governor Edwards mentions is the 50-year master plan from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority or CPRA.

This state-level agency was formed after Hurricane Katrina. The federal government wanted to deal with one centralized agency to handle activities related to restoration and protection for the state of Louisiana. The CPRA issues a master plan every 5 years. The latest plan listed 127 projects across 20 parishes.

Bren Haase, the Chief of Planning and Research for the CPRA, said the biggest thing to help restore the coast is to sustain the coastal outline.

"As to input sediment into that coast to help build marshes and barrier islands really are the first line of defense to protecting us from the storm surges associated with a tropical system," Haase said.

CPRA has two types of projects, dredging and sediment diversion will help recreate what Mother Nature is taking away.

Dredging takes existing sediment, often underwater, and pumps it onto the coastline, creating new land areas. The results of dredging are often immediate but are not sustainable.

Sediment diversion is a more large-scale project that continuously redirects a sustainable flow of sediment from the Mississippi River into surrounding coastal wetlands.

"Projects range anywhere from the hundreds of thousands of dollars up to over 1 billion dollars in terms of what's been laid out in the master plan," Haase said. "So historically funding has been relatively limited. So many of the projects we have done has been in that hundreds of thousands to tens of millions dollar range."

Since its inception roughly ten years ago, the agency has created 60 miles of barrier islands, dredged enough sediment to fill the Superdome 23 times and helped over 40,000 acres of wetlands.

But all this can't be done without money...lots of money.  So far, roughly 42 separate revenue sources have secured $20 billion of the plan's $50 billion requests.

Chairman of the CPRA Johnny Bradberry said the agency has two main issues holding it back.

"We've got to get our permitting hurdles out of the way and we've got to find more money," Bradberry said. "We've got to bring projects to the table that are impactful. Because we have a window of opportunity here and if we don't take advantage of that then we'll be in worse conditions than what we are."

Graves adds, "If we allow politics to seep into a program that's going to be 50 billion dollars or more, we will never be successful. We will never sustain our coastal Louisiana, and we're going to put 2 million people's lives, families in jeopardy."

Of the 127 proposed projects, two stand out. The CRPA wants to create two massive river diversion structures with a combined price tag of 2 to 2.5 billion dollars. The money is there thanks to the 7.2 billion dollar payout from BP following the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster. But, both projects are on the permit chopping block by the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We're not coming here begging for more money for these projects. We have the money," Bradberry said. "You need to help us get the permits that we need to get these projects installed to help streamline that."

The hope for the two projects is to create and sustain tens of thousands of acres of wetlands from the Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast. This would slow the rate of land loss in Louisiana.

But the projects don't come without controversy.

Fishermen along the Brenton and Barataria Bays argue that the introduction of so much fresh water from the Mississippi River will hurt their fishing operations, especially with shrimp and oysters. In addition, bottlenose dolphins inhabit the Barataria area and could lose their habitat due to the amount of fresh water being infused.

The biggest takeaway, though, is that this master plan is not the end all be all.

"While this is a 50 year 50 billion dollar plan, this is not something that Louisiana is ever going to be done with," Haase said. "So if we implemented everything within the existing plan and expended that 50 billion dollars there's still more that needs to be done."

The expectation is that the projects and funds from the master plan will help sustain some areas while slowing down the pace of land loss for coastal Louisiana.

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