Coastal Wetland Act still vital

The Coastal Wetland Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1990, created a lot of firsts for Louisiana.

The act set up the first dedicated federal funding source for coastal restoration and formed a task force addressing, for the first time, how to build coastal restoration projects in Louisiana.

From its humble beginnings, the CWPPRA program became a catalyst for much of the coastal restoration efforts in the state by developing a coastal monitoring system, training a generation of coastal scientists, building projects to stem some of the worst erosion and providing an incubator for restoration projects.

But the role of the program is evolving. Now in its 23rd year, it faces limited funding for new projects and a current Congressional authorization set to end in 2019 — all at a time hundreds of millions of dollars in coastal restoration funding are available through sources outside CWPPRA’s authority.

Nevertheless, many people involved in coastal restoration feel CWPPRA still has a role to play, getting restoration projects ready to be built even as the focus shifts to larger projects.

“CWPPRA has gone from the only game in town and it has evolved into a gap filler for the large basin-scale projects we’re moving forward now,” said Garret Graves, coastal adviser to the governor and the state’s representative on the CWPPRA task force.

“This program plays a really critical role,” he said, noting its dedicated funding and the role it plays in gathering federal, state and other information about restoration projects.

CWPPRA also ensures projects are consistent with the state’s 2012 master plan for restoration.

Under the CWPPRA program, projects are funded through a 85 to 15 cost share, with the state picking up the 15 percent. Although the state can’t vote on matters pertaining to federal funding allocations, it does have veto power over what projects can move forward, by agreeing, or not agreeing, to pay that 15 percent cost-share.

“The state is really tightening down where they’re willing to spend the 15 percent support,” said Tom Holden, deputy district engineer for project management with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans district. “The master plan is driving that.”

Graves added that the state has already been talking with the state’s Congressional delegation to work on getting CWPPRA reauthorized sooner rather than later.

“There’re been a lot of talk about bigger programs, but CWPPRA has been the one big source of funding,” said Brad Inman, senior program manager for CWPPRA for the Corps of Engineers.

Initially, the CWPPRA task force had about $30 million a year to spend on project design and construction in Louisiana. Now, that amount is up to $80 million to $85 million a year. Even so, that doesn’t go very far because of the dramatic rise in construction costs since the 2005 hurricane season.

So far, the program has built about 100 projects and either saved or restored 100,000 acres of Louisiana coast, Inman said. There are about 13 projects under construction and another 45 in the process of engineering and design.

In the early days of the program, one hurdle was convincing people that coastal wetland loss was even occurring.

Widely recognized as the first to publish information about this loss, Woody Gagliano, owner of the Coastal Environments Inc. and a longtime coastal researcher, made waves in the early 1970s when he released results from a study that showed 16.5 square miles a year in land loss was occurring in south Louisiana.

“That was a shocker. No one believed it,” Gagliano said. “My impression was contrary to popular opinion that the delta was still building land.”

More than 20 years later, there was still disbelief, said Scott Wilson, chief of the special analysis branch with the U.S. Geological Survey at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette.

“I remember sitting in a public meeting in 1994 where it was argued (whether) coastal land loss was even happening,” Wilson said. “Back in the day, it was hard to convince people we had a wetland loss problem.”

Creation of a plan

In 1987, a group of scientists, coastal residents and other activists — known as the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana — published a report about what needed to be done. A big hurdle, the group soon learned, was that coastal restoration wasn’t the responsibility of any single agency.

“There were a lot of things wrong with the coast and there were a lot of things that could be done, but it was really nobody’s job to do it,” said Mark Davis, who served as the coalition’s executive director for 14 years before becoming the founding director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy in 2007.

In 1989, the state passed Act 6, which put in place the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities and set up a State Wetlands Authority and the Coastal Wetlands Trust Fund, which receives state oil and gas monies. The next year, Congress passed CWPPRA through the work of then-senators John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston that dedicated part of a small-engine fuel tax for use in coastal restoration in Louisiana.

The act also set up a task force of representatives from five federal agencies — the Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce — and from the governor’s office.

“The fact that it existed was significant,” Davis said, noting that the birth of CWPPRA finally signaled that coastal restoration was indeed someone’s job.

“It took awhile for everyone just to get in the same room and talk,” said Brit Paul, assistant state conservationist for water resources with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

CWPPRA forced the five federal agencies and the state to find ways to work together and develop a plan addressing coastal land loss.

Project incubator

“You don’t have one agency bottlenecking something at the end,” said William Honker, director of the water quality protection division at EPA Region 6 and a member of the CWPPRA task force. “Things get resolved much earlier in the process.”

CWPPRA’s first projects are now “aging out” of the program, forcing the task force to decide whether to find a local sponsor to take over maintenance and operation for the projects, to continue funding the projects, to pay to remove some structures if they pose a potential hazards or to stop the funding but let the projects remain in place.

The first two of those projects reaching the 20-year mark are the Bayou LaBranche marsh creation project in the Lake Pontchartrain basin and the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge shoreline protection project. Built in 1994, both projects did well over the years. The recommendation is to keep the projects in place but stop additional funding and return any remaining monies to CWPPRA.

If CWPPRA’s federal authorization ends in 2019, only a few years of actual project construction and design are left.

“There are currently more projects that are proposed than there is actually funding to address,” said Col. Richard Hansen, New Orleans district commander with the corps. “Really, what (CWPPRA) has become over the last several years is an incubator for projects.”

More and more, projects designed through the program have been taken over by other entities, mainly the state, for construction.

The state is now moving forward with a series of large-scale land-building projects, which take take a long time to plan and build, Wilson said.

In the meantime, he said, CWPPRA will continue to make strategic choices through what smaller projects it chooses to bolster key areas on the coast.

“Someone’s got to protect these critical ecosystem features,” he said.