A coalition of scientists, environmentalists and policy groups is encouraging state and federal officials to work together to make sure a coastal restoration plan in southeast Louisiana moves forward.
The MRGO Must Go Coalition sent its comments in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Ecosystem Restoration feasibility report, which outlines a plan for almost 60,000 acres hurt by MRGO.
Corps officials and state officials have different opinions on who should pay for the work.
Corps officials say the $3 billion plan falls under the requirement that a local sponsor, in this case the state, has to pay 35 percent of the project’s cost as well as other responsibilities, such as land acquisition, maintenance and operation.
The report recommends “no further action” because the corps cannot find a nonfederal sponsor, in this case the state, to take over 35 percent of the cost and other duties.
State officials say Congress specifically laid out that both the plan and the construction of the plan elements would fall completely on the federal government.
The chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Garrett Graves, sent a letter to the corps on Aug. 17 stating the state formally agreed to be the local sponsor of the plan’s projects but that does not mean the state will obligate money toward that end.
“They’re not at an agreement at this point,” said Amanda Moore, Greater New Orleans program manager with the National Wildlife Federation and coordinator of the MRGO Must Go Coalition.
She said a disagreement shouldn’t be allowed to derail a program of shoreline stabilization, marsh restoration and other ecosystem projects outlined in the plan.
To have the plan and future action put on the shelf because of a dispute over costs, “in our minds, is totally unacceptable,” Moore said.
The cost share was never specifically mentioned in the congressional direction to develop and build ecosystem restoration, said Greg Miller, chief of plan formulation at the corps New Orleans district, meaning the previous law of a 35 percent local and 65 percent federal cost share applies.
While state and federal officials disagree about cost share, almost everyone agrees the MRGO work is needed.
“The events of the last week or so really point out the importance of a project like this,” Miller said. The 60,000 acres of wetland restoration the plan includes could do a lot to help buffer communities from future storm surge, he said.
Graves has said many times during Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meetings that restoring areas affected by the MRGO is necessary and long overdue.
Built in the 1950s and 1960s, MRGO provided a navigation shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.
However, the channel also gave a much more direct line for saltwater intrusion, which damaged marshland. The channel was blamed for reducing the storm protection for areas such as St. Bernard Parish and parts of Orleans Parish, especially during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was closed in 2009.
“These projects are a critical part of addressing the systematic ecosystem restoration and protection of the Lake Borgne ecosystem and areas affected by the MRGO navigation channel,” Graves wrote in his Aug. 17 letter to the corps.
Graves also has maintained the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 says the construction of the plan’s project will be funded by the federal government.