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Coastal Consolidation 

A new state agency has Louisiana rethinking its approach to coastal affairs and Gov. Bobby Jindal searching for an experienced director

Now that Gov. Bobby Jindal has decided who will be his next executive counsel, he can begin focusing more intently on hiring a director for his newest agency. While legislators were fretting over reductions to state government in the opening salvo of bureaucratic consolidations, Jindal was quietly overseeing the reorganization of coastal-related sections in four departments via House Bill 833.

  The legislation recently signed by the governor merges them into the new Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, which falls under Jindal's executive branch. Garret Graves, the governor's director of coastal affairs, says there's practically no increased cost to state government because existing resources were merely reallocated.

  The new office pulls from the departments of Wildlife and Fisheries, Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, and Transportation and Development. Graves says the office could grow next year, because the governor's team may add parts of the Department of Social Services, which plays a key role in hurricane evacuations.

  For now, there are more practical matters to look after. Graves says a national search for a salaried executive director is already under way; officials are seeking someone with extensive engineering experience and firsthand dealings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We are in the process of interviewing folks right now," he says. "We hope to have the position filled by next month."

  At the Division of Administration, staffers are hard at work making room in the 2010-11 budget, which will feature a brand-new line item for the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, arguably the first state agency of its kind in the nation. Administrative costs are expected to be less than 1 percent of the office's total budget, and more than 98 percent of the agency's coastal-related work will be contracted out to the private sector.

  The real power, though, remains with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The CPRA was formed in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and has become the state's guiding force on coastal issues. The new agency will carry out the CPRA's policies and directives.

  The legislation, authored by House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, also makes the CPRA the nonfederal partner on most major projects. Now Graves, the CPRA's chairman, can negotiate contract terms directly with the feds on behalf of the state's entire coastline.

  Dove's bill deliberately uses the word "integrated" in key provisions. He says the intent is to have the state look at hurricane protection, coastal restoration and flood control all at once when it tackles coastal challenges. Specifically, the bill calls for the following to be included in all comprehensive plans, if applicable: coastal restoration, coastal protection, infrastructure, storm damage reduction, flood control, water resources development, erosion control measures, marsh management, diversions, saltwater intrusion prevention, central wetlands, conservation, enhancement, mitigation, storm surge reduction and beneficial use projects. Elsewhere in the new law, language emphasizes a new focus on marshes, cheniers, ridges and coastal forests.

  Several provisions in the new law will impact the way levee boards in the New Orleans region conduct business. For instance, if a major project requires mitigation — i.e., land that must be built to replace the land lost during construction — the law allows levee boards to use land already owned by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, such as those found in wildlife management areas. "That could save millions of dollars on large-scale projects," says Dove.

  The consolidation also takes into account flood-control issues, which has prompted some north Louisiana lawmakers to push for the CPRA's scope to extend beyond the coastal zone. To be certain, legislators know that $100 billion or more will be needed to repair the coastline, and the number of federal funding sources available is dizzying. Close to $15 billion is about to come in for levees; the latest energy bill in Congress has around $30 million set aside for Louisiana's coastal master plan; and future oil revenues will bring tens of billions of dollars to the state in coming decades.

  All of that loot is another reason the state needed to step up its coastal efforts, says Steven Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a Baton Rouge nonprofit that sprouted after the 2005 hurricane season. As dozens of projects break ground and billions of taxpayer dollars flow into the state, a concerted approach will be needed to make sure Louisiana doesn't screw the pooch this time. Jindal's new agency is one step in the right direction.

  "This is something that had to be done to increase efficiency," Peyronnin says. "It's the next step in the process."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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