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Save Our Coast 

When former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert returned to his hometown near Galliano seven years ago, he eyed the South Lafourche levee system as if it were an offensive line. Hebert needed that kind of protection. He was trying to decide whether to build a house for his family. And like most hurricane-wary residents of south Louisiana, he had heard the old warning recently revived by a governor's committee on coastal erosion: the state is losing up to 30 square miles of coastal land each year. That's nearly a football field of prime wetlands every 30 minutes.

The quarterback, then with the Atlanta Falcons, asked his father to contact South Lafourche Levee District director Windell Curole, who is recognized as a coastal expert by television hurricane forecasters in New Orleans. "How's that levee?" Bobby Hebert Sr. asked. "Like anywhere else in south Louisiana," replied Curole, "elevation is a salvation from inundation."

Curole's warning is now echoed by an ominous request from U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, for a congressional task force to study coastal erosion in Louisiana. Louisiana will ask for up to $20 billion in federal funding over the next two decades. The money will be targeted for massive construction projects aimed at keeping the 19 coastal parishes from slipping into the Gulf.

Our coastal angst is augmented by an accelerated sea level rise, which is the result of global climate change. Moreover, the same levees that protect populations from floods also impede the annual Mississippi River flow of nutrients and sediments into our marshes -- thereby helping create coastal "dead zones" that cannot support Louisiana shellfish and marine life.

In addition, coastal canals have fostered harmful saltwater intrusion. The canals were carved in the marshes during the 1940s and '50s to expedite oil and gas exploration and intracoastal maritime transportation. In the 1960s and '70s, oil and gas pipelines were laid across our wetlands, causing still more destruction. Strict state and federal oversight had not then become a fact of life in the Oil Patch.

"A lot of our problem is repairing the damage from bad decisions," says Dr. Len Bahr, a coastal scientist and Gov. Mike Foster's top adviser on coastal issues.

Tauzin, acknowledging the diversion of federal funding to national security issues since Sept. 11, says Louisiana needs to promote its coast as a disappearing "national treasure." Our federal and state officials plan to model federal fundraising efforts for the coast after the $7 billion rescue of the Florida Everglades. Louisiana will be expected to pony up $150 to $200 million a year in the effort.

Can we save our coast? Officials for the organization that built the successful "Save Our Lake" movement say we can. "It's going to take money and it's going to take the rest of the nation to believe we are serious about the effort," says Neil Armingeon, environmental director of the nonprofit Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

"It is not merely a question of new dollars," adds Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. "We have to do work on navigation channels, highways and levees just to continue living here. The question is, can you coordinate all those projects, so that you are avoiding as many costs as you can?"

Everyone -- environmentalists, developers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and elected officials -- must work together to ensure that future projects strike a better balance between protecting the coastal wetlands and promoting economic development. R. King Milling, president of Whitney National Bank and head of the Governor's Committee on the Future of Coastal Louisiana, said it best last October: "Succeeding in restoring Louisiana's coast can mean the difference between a sound economic future and a disastrous one. Once these wetlands go, so goes the protection of our oil and gas industry, one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, our economy, our culture, our future."

This promises to be a massive project, and it's going to take a unified effort. For starters:

· Gov. Foster must make coastal preservation a legacy item for the remaining 20 months of his administration. "I urge people to hold the governor to his promise," Dr. Bahr says.

· We need the best, most affordable research and development program for the state. Currently, top coastal scientists such as John Day of Louisiana State University and Robert Twilly of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette get more funding to research the Everglades than our own coast. That makes no sense.

· Coastal and wetlands preservation must be a top priority of all statewide candidates in the 2003 elections.

We must act before our future slips into the sea. The rest of the nation is not going to help us unless we show that we care about our state. Otherwise, we'll all end up like Bobby Hebert Jr., who built his elevated house about 600 feet from the levee. Today, 15 miles away from his home, the Gulf of Mexico measures its daily insurgency in football fields.

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