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Going Coastal 

America's Wetland mixes fun with a stern warning to repair Louisiana's eroding coast

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With the 2009 Hurricane Season beginning on June 1, America's Wetland, a public awareness campaign focused on coastal restoration, wants the national media's spotlight to shine on the important role our fragile coastaline plays in the nation's security. At the same time, it wants to give locals a reason to party.

  "So we designed a series of events from the celebratory to the somber," says Val Marmillion, managing director of America's Wetland Foundation (AWF). The fourth annual "Storm Warning: Last Stand for America's Wetland" program underscores the state's continuing loss of wetlands while celebrating the culture and people of Louisiana. Storm Warning kicks off with an outdoor concert on Saturday at the Woldenberg Park featuring food and live music from Irma Thomas, Rockin' Dopsie Jr. and others. The following day, two fleets of boats — representing recreational and commercial interests — meet in Houma for a boat parade and music festival. On Monday, June 1, a summit on coastal issues, "Sustaining the Unique Coastal Culture of Louisiana," is scheduled in Lake Charles.

  Coastal restoration could use a national spotlight. While the state has contributed $800 million toward rebuilding the wetlands over the past three years, Congress still has not spent any of the $2 billion it authorized nearly two years ago. It will take even more money to restore the coast, with estimates reaching as much as $100 billion.

  AWF answers criticisms that its sponsors, which include a number of oil and chemical companies, bear a larger responsibility than just paying for a public awareness campaign by saying that unless there is a united front of business and conservation interests, the federal government will never fully address the issue of wetland loss until it is too late.

For those living in Louisiana's coastal area, the need to accelerate wetland restoration is obvious. Besides offering a bounty of seafood and a habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, the coastal marshes serve as a buffer against hurricanes, and according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), more than 2 million people — 47 percent of the state's population — live in the coastal parishes. Louisiana has lost more than 1,900 square miles of land to erosion since the 1930s; despite current restoration efforts, another 500 square miles of coast are projected to wash away over the next 50 years.

  Considering Louisiana's contribution to U.S. energy supplies — it's first in crude oil production and second in natural gas production — and how gas prices skyrocketed around the country after Hurricane Katrina slowed that production, it seems fixing the coast would be an easy policy to sell. Congress recognized Louisiana's role in the nation's energy supply in 2005 when it passed the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, a four-year plan to help restore coastal areas in oil- and gas-producing states using funds from offshore oil and gas revenues from the outer continental shelf. By the end of 2010, Louisiana will have received almost $500 million from the program. Congress took another positive step when it passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, co-written by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., which will give the state offshore revenue royalties for new oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico beginning in 2017.

  Announced funding, however, doesn't always translate into actual money. The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007 authorized nearly $2 billion for coastal restoration in Louisiana, and the legislation was written to fast-track projects that were part of the state's master plan for coastal restoration. Unfortunately, those projects remain in limbo until Congress takes the next step and appropriates money from the federal budget to fund them. Landrieu, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, intends to take that step in the next appropriations cycle.

  Even when the money starts flowing, there can be further federal delays. Normally, work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is funded on a project-by-project basis. Landrieu's office says the senator is trying to get broader authority for funding, or "programmatic appropriation," so instead of voting on individual projects, Congress could appropriate money for the state's coastal restoration master plan, which contains many projects. Even though the Corps' $23 million "Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Study" was a disappointment — a year and a half overdue and void of specific recommendations — Landrieu hopes it can be used as the basis for expanding funding beyond WRDA's $2 billion as well as fast-tracking money once it is authorized.

  Louisiana is obligated to pay part of the cost of every federal coastal restoration project, and over the past two years the state Legislature has approved $500 million in coastal restoration funding. This year's proposed budget, which is being debated in the current legislative session, sets aside $300 million for such efforts. So far, the state has committed $200 million of these funds as its cost share for the Corps' $15 billion New Orleans hurricane protection system. If the budget passes, another $100 million will be allocated to pay the state's share for Corps projects in the metro area.

  Jerome Zeringue, acting executive director of the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, says the state has demonstrated its commitment over the past three years, but much more is necessary.

  "Obviously it's a drop in the bucket, and it's only scratching the surface," Zeringue says of Louisiana's restoration budget. "The problem is so significant and huge, but at least it's encouraging that we have some funding and we can make some headway in terms of addressing this issue."

  Where Louisiana will come up with money for restoration projects in the future is not clear. For the past three years, the money has come from a budget surplus — which in 2008 totaled $2 billion — due to higher oil and gas prices. With current fuel prices lower than last year, the budget surplus will likely be smaller.

Since its founding in 2002, AWF's mission has centered on making Americans understand the economic importance of the Gulf Coast and the fragile state of the wetlands. Through media campaigns and lobbying state and federal governments, the group has made its case for increased federal funding, but as Marmillion points out, bureaucracies move at a snail's pace.

  "There is no assurance of anything," he says. "We sort of sit like the Everglades. They had their authorized bill (from Congress) for five years — I think for almost $8 billion — and they've just started seeing a trickle of the money flow."

  Marmillion says oil and chemical companies digging channels through the wetlands has caused some damage, but rerouting the Mississippi River with levee systems is responsible for the majority of wetland destruction — and the federal government permitted the work.

  "That's not letting energy companies off the hook and that's not letting chemical companies off the hook," he says. "But we'd rather have them at the table trying to solve the problem than creating antagonistic positions where we don't have any results."

  Shell Oil is AWF's chief sponsor; others include Chevron, Dow Chemical Company, CITGO, Exxon Mobil and various energy and chemical companies. Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, says AWF has brought attention to wetlands loss, but she feels oil and chemical interests haven't done enough.

  "One of my concerns is, that alone is not going to potentially move the decision makers as much as would the oil companies making a significant push to get this done," she says.

  Last year, AWF launched America's Energy Coast, an initiative that brought together industry and environmental organizations. In July 2008, the group released a sustainability accord with priorities that included continued development of domestic energy production and the conservation and restoration of marine and wildlife habitats.

  "When we announced our campaign, we had the head of the Environmental Defense (Fund) standing with the head of Shell, and I will say it was difficult to have them both there," Marmillion says.

  One thing Marmillion and Sarthou agree on is that the nation needs to heed the warning that Louisiana's coast is disappearing. As part of Storm Warning in Houma, Marmillion says, boat flotillas will blast their horns to "sound the alarm." Hopefully, America will be listening.

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