Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Corps Approves $2.9 billion Wetlands Restoration Plan, Requires State to Pay 35%

The chief of the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday approved a $2.9 billion plan to restore wetlands destroyed by construction of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. But the corps continues to demand that Louisiana pay 35 percent of the construction costs, or $975 million, which the state is loath to do.

Officials have twice sent letters to senior corps officials saying the state will agree to be the non-federal sponsor for the restoration program and will pay whatever share of the cost is eventually determined to comply with federal law.

But a corps spokesman said the letters were rejected because they did not commit the state to the 35 percent cost sharing that the corps says is required under its reading of a 1986 federal law governing water projects.

Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the corps demanded the state sign a letter containing specific language rejecting the state’s claim that the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 requires the corps to pay the full cost of the project.

The state rejected that demand, and instead twice sent letters agreeing to be local sponsor, but reserving its rights to push for no cost sharing.

Graves said that while the impasse over money remains, the announcement Tuesday by Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, chief of the corps, actually is a bit better than his July recommendation that the project be halted because of the money disagreement.

Graves said the state already has committed to spending as much as $100 million on projects to restore the shoreline along the eastern New Orleans land bridge bordering Lake Borgne, on several oyster reef projects in the Biloxi Marshes, and on a plan to restore cypress and tupelo in the Central Wetlands unit bordering the Lower 9th Ward and Arabi, all of which are part of the corps plan.

Even if the disagreement over the state’s share is worked out, it may be quite some time before Congress appropriates additional money for the project.

A wild card in the money fight might be the result of a lawsuit filed by St. Bernard Parish and private landowners in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., that argues the corps' construction of the MR-GO and its failure to maintain the navigation channel affected the value of property adjacent to the channel.

Part of the money from any settlement of the suit could be used as matching funds for the restoration projects, parish officials have said.

The federal judge that oversaw the trial in that lawsuit has not yet ruled.

The corps and state might also benefit from money funneled to Louisiana for coastal restoration as part of any settlement with BP over Clean Water Act fines resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The state is expected to receive a significant share of the $5 billion to $21 billion that could be levied against BP and other parties responsible for the spill.

The report recommends that the restoration project be built in three tiers, with the first tier costing $1.3 billion. The second and third tiers would require additional research before they were implemented.

The plan includes 21 features within Tier 1, which are not dependent on the diversion, including 11 shoreline protection projects, one ridge restoration project, 8 wetlands restoration projects and a recreation feature. The state would be required to pay half the cost of the recreation feature, which might include a boardwalk, picnic shelters and parking at Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish.

Sediment for several of the wetland restoration projects would be dredged from Lake Borgne.

The first tier would include restoration of wetlands adjacent to the Rigolets in St. Tammany Parish, and in open water areas south of the MR-GO and Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish.
It also would include numerous projects to stabilize wetland edges at Proctor Point and on the east and west sides of Lake Borgne. Also included would be the planting of 5.8 miles of artificial oyster reef on the Chandeleur Sound side of the Biloxi Marsh.

The Tier 2 projects, which would cost $325 million, are dependent on reduced salinity, but may be sustainable without the freshwater diversion. Further analysis is needed, however, before they will be cleared for construction.

Included are several patches of the Central Wetlands Unit adjacent to the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, where a cypress forest would be reintroduced.

The Tier 3 projects would cost about $1 billion, plus the cost of building the diversion. The diversion, authorized under a different part of 2007 legislation governing the restoration project, would require a 25 percent state cost share, with Louisiana paying 80 percent and Mississippi paying 20 percent.

That's because the freshwater from the diversion is expected to freshen oyster beds in Mississippi Sound.

The cost of the diversion is not yet known.

Tier 3 would include additional parts of the Central Wetlands Unit in St. Bernard Parish east of the Paris Road Bridge, which will require freshwater from the diversion. Also dependent on the diversion would be additional restoration of the Golden Triangle wetlands, parts of the East Orleans Landbridge bordering on Lake Pontchartrain, and a segment of the Biloxi Marsh bordering the southeastern edge of Lake Borgne.

Parts of the Tier 2 projects and much of the Tier 3 work may be dependent on the rate of sea level rise in the Lake Borgne area, according to the feasibility report. The report uses new corps rules that require the use of three alternative forecasts of rising oceans, combined with estimates of how quickly local soils will sink.

The high rate in that forecast includes a sea level rise estimate with an upward adjustment to accommodate the potential rapid loss of ice from Antarctica and Greenland.

Under that high scenario, the ground beneath wetlands in the project area would be sinking more quickly than sediment and organic material was being added, and the wetland plants would be unlikely to survive. As a result, the restoration projects would add only 11,387 acres of new land after 50 years, a third of the estimate from a low sea level rise scenario.

A copy of Bostick's report, the feasibility report, and an accompanying environmental impact statement are available on the web at www.mrgo.gov/

The Mississippi River Delta is vanishing before our eyes. The loss of Coastal Louisiana's wetlands affects waterfowl hunters across the country and harms fishing in the Gulf. If we don't act soon, the delta as we know it could be gone forever. There are solutions at hand: we can reconnect the Mississippi River to its delta and breathe new life into this critical ecosystem. 

This video by LinderMedia looks at the Vanishing Paradise campaign to raise awareness of the need to restore the Delta among hunters and anglers nationwide. Vanishing Paradise is joint project of Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation.

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