Graves to step down from state’s coastal protection agency

After six years as the leader of coastal restoration for the state of Louisiana, Garret Graves is stepping down effective Feb. 17

As chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, Graves has butted heads with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over levee repairs in New Orleans and entered cooperative agreements with the corps for other projects. He has directed restoration and levee response through numerous tropical storms and hurricanes while helping to secure funding to do bigger coastal restoration and levee projects.

He has been a vocal opponent of a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East while taking the U.S. Coast Guard to task for not forcing BP to do more in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Through it all, coastal restoration proponents in the state said he has brought vision and progress to the state’s coastal protection efforts.

“Since the day he started working, I think he had an idea of how this program could function,” said Cynthia Duet, director of governmental relations with Audubon Louisiana. “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard.”

Graves turned in his letter of resignation Jan. 27 and the Governor’s Office announced late Tuesday afternoon that he would be leaving.

“When I took the job, my wife made me promise it would be a two-year deal,” Graves said with a laugh. Six years later, he said, “We’ve made a ton of progress and we have a good organization in place.”

Leaving the position, he said, is something he’d been thinking about for a long time in talking with his family.

“It’s an intense job. There’s an extraordinary amount of activity,” Graves said.

Sidney Coffee, senior adviser with America’s Wetland Foundation and who was Graves’ predecessor under Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said Graves had to take concepts that were developed after Hurricane Katrina and put in the details, which was not an easy job to do.

“This has been a very tough six years,” she said. “It’s a hard job and as we go forward, it gets harder and harder.”

Karen Gautreaux, director of government relations for the Louisiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy, echoed what most people said — that Graves announcing his resignation was a surprise.

“Garret has been an incredible force for Louisiana’s coast. I think he can look back on many accomplishments,” she said.

John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said he had his doubts when Graves was first appointed because of his political background in serving as an adviser to congressional committees as well as congressmen and senators. However, Lopez said, it was probably because of that political savvy that Graves was able to keep some of the politics out of coastal restoration planning for the state, leading to a master plan for restoration and protection that was objective and science-based.

Although he doesn’t know what his next steps will be, Graves said he’s started making a list and one of those items involves volunteering his efforts to a nonprofit that will help educate political, business and community leaders around the country about the importance of taking action on coastal restoration and protection. Graves said he wants to show that coastal erosion in Louisiana is not only a state problem, but it has national significance.

“That’s how I plan to stay involved, but that’s not going to pay the bills,” Graves said.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority was created by the state legislature in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as an effort to bring together coastal restoration and hurricane protection efforts under one group. The CPRA took staff from various state agencies that were already working on the issues, including the state Department of Natural Resources and the state Department of Transportation and Development, and brought them under one roof.

Through that group, the state has put together master plans that work to merge the restoration projects, levee work and other hurricane protection measures, with the last one being approved by the state legislature in 2012.

Duet added that on-the-ground construction of projects has increased greatly from where it was in the past and that the CPRA is involved in more than 100 projects moving forward in either design or construction.

The person Gov. Bobby Jindal has selected to replace Graves in leading state coastal restoration and protection efforts is Jerome Zeringue, who currently is the executive director of the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority. The state office is charged with planning and building projects. Zeringue has a master’s degree in fisheries biology from LSU and held previous positions as a fisheries biologist with LSU Sea Grant, coastal resources director for The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana and executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District. The current deputy director of CPRA, Kyle Graham, will replace Zeringue as executive director.