Photos: St. Bernard oyster reef to aid shoreline _lowres

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Edwin Martinez, left, Clint Victorian, and Randy Leleux, in excavator, prepare and oyster reef block for placement in Lake Athanasio in St. Bernard Parish, La. Friday, May 30, 2014. J.The project to reintroduce oysters in coastal wetlands is a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, Chevron, Americas Wetlands and the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Louisiana coastal advocates were left scratching their heads after a proposal was made at a recent state coastal authority meeting to divert any extra money from a list of coastal projects to the elevation work on La. 1 in Lafourche Parish.

The proposed resolution was introduced at the September Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meeting and was tabled. It is expected to be taken up again at the October meeting.

The proposal, if approved, would not kick in until the coastal projects are completed, which would likely take at least 15 years, and by then, there is little chance that any money will be left over.

The resolution goes against how the state said it would spend money it received from the civil penalties collected over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as outlined in the RESTORE Act. The state has maintained it would spend the money on coastal restoration projects.

“It sounds like a bad deal for both sides,” said Steve Cochran, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program. “I don’t see the benefit for La. 1 either.”

Proponents of the proposed resolution say spending the money on the elevation of La. 1 is legally allowed by the RESTORE Act and state law. They also point out that the elevation program is a necessary project to protect coastal communities. In addition, they say, using the money on La. 1 doesn’t represent a divergence from the stated goals of the state because the La. 1 road project is included in the master plan, even though that inclusion is just a photo and caption, not a project proposal.

Most agree that the elevation of La. 1 from Golden Meadow to Port Fourchon is critical as the ground-level road is often subject to flooding as the land sinks. However coastal advocates say that even talking about diverting the money hurts the state’s reputation and future chance for additional federal funding needed to pay the $50 billion price tag for the state’s coastal master plan.

“There is no underestimating the importance of Port Fourchon, but these types of projects must stay separate from restoration efforts,” said King Milling, chair of the America’s WETLAND Foundation and a CPRA board member. “Unless we do everything possible to stop coastal land loss in this state, there will not be a Port Fourchon or Grand Isle.”

Milling added that “this funding source should remain dedicated to its intended purpose and any attempt to do otherwise would set a bad precedence.”

Coastal advocates agree, saying the proposed resolution goes against what the state has been saying for years as to where the RESTORE Act money would be spent.

“For three years, we’ve seen the state saying over and over and over our priority is to build master plan projects,” said David Muth, Louisiana director of Gulf Restoration with the National Wildlife Federation.

While there’s no question the La. 1 elevation project is critical, this isn’t the way to pay for it, he said, adding that he didn’t know why diverting the money had even been proposed.

“It seems to be burning a lot of political capital and general good will people feel towards (the La. 1 Coalition) and their mission for very tenuous results,” Muth said.

Rebecca Triche, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, agreed, saying, “It’s a hit on integrity.”

Coastal groups also worry this could be the first of many attempts to draw money away from coastal restoration.

“My guess is the phone is already ringing within the offices of CPRA from people who have projects, worthy projects, now that they see a new source of funds,” Cochran said.

Cynthia Duet, deputy director of Audubon Louisiana, agreed.

“It’s something of a slippery slope,” she said.

The lack of funding for the La. 1 elevation project says more about the problems in transportation funding for a road that has national importance, she said.

“Using restoration dollars for any road project could slow down the restoration process,” she said.

Chris Macaluso, director of the Center for Marine Fisheries with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said at a time when the state is moving forward with master plan projects, it’s a shame this has even come into the conversation.

“This administration made a commitment to use this money for coastal restoration and hurricane protection,” Macaluso said. “This deviates from that.”

Chip Kline, the governor’s adviser for Coastal Activities and the chairman of the CPRA board, said the office has already been getting calls about other road projects that might be eligible; however, it’s easy to make the case that La. 1 is different because of its importance to the nation’s supply of offshore oil and gas.

Although he understands the concerns about what impact the resolution could have on public perception or funding, he said the state’s list of coastal projects is strong enough to stand on their own merits and La. 1 is a completely legal use of the money.

“It’s not going to build a stadium. It’s not going to build a convention center,” he said.

The proposed resolution, which was tabled at the September meeting, will be introduced at the next CPRA meeting in October and a vote will be called for, he said.

Coastal advocates say it’s still a mystery of why the resolution is being pursued now, not back when the latest master plan was developed in 2012 or when the state developed its plan for spending the RESTORE Act money, which has already been approved by the U.S. Treasury and did not include La. 1 in it.

Some have said it is connected to a $1 million donation to Gov. Jindal’s presidential campaign from Edison Chouest Offshore, which is a major company in Port Fourchon and is served by La. 1.

While the Governor’s Office did not answer whether the two are related, a spokesman did issue a short statement on the project.

“The corridor’s importance to both coastal restoration and Louisiana’s economy, in addition to the global economy for that matter, is indisputable. That’s why Louisiana has already invested $375 million in the La. 1 corridor over the course of our administration,” according to the statement. “We will continue to seek funding and support opportunities for one of the most robust coastal zones in the country. The La. 1 corridor ensures sustainability of restoration efforts, response capabilities and economic growth.”

Henri Boulet, executive director of the La. 1 Coalition, said the group has been working on getting funding for the elevation of the road for decades and that La. 1 is an acceptable use of the RESTORE Act money.

Criticisms that this is a change in policy aren’t true, he said.

“Maybe these groups from out of town may have some idea of what they want it to be,” he said. “La. 1 is in the master plan. It is well-documented in the master plan.”

When asked about whether the road elevation project can wait at least 15 years and only then find out if there’s any RESTORE Act money left, Boulet said he didn’t know if it would be that long before the money would become available, but he was vague on details.

If it did end up being 15 years or more, he said, “No, it’s not too long to wait.”

Although one large section of the elevated road is already built from Leeville to Port Fourchon, there are three more sections to construct: One short section will take the road over the levee system at Golden Meadow; another short section will take the road from the current elevated roadway toward Golden Meadow; and the third stretch will connect the two sections.

Sooner, he said, is better as the Gulf of Mexico continues to threaten the road with flooding.

“Time and tide are not on La. 1’s side,” he said.

He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that by 2027 the road will be closed 6 percent of the time by nothing more than high tides.

As far as the resolution hurting the state’s credibility, Boulet said, “I think that’s ridiculous.”

Windell Curole, member of the CPRA board and general manager at South Lafourche Levee District, said both sides have become entrenched in their opinions on whether the money should be spent on La 1.

Instead, he said, like many issues the state coastal board deals with, this one involves compromise.

The purpose of the state master plan is for the sustainability of communities in south Louisiana, including Port Fourchon, which depends on elevating La. 1 is a big part of that, he said, and taxes paid by the port help provide the money that allows the district to build levee protection for residents in parts of Lafourche Parish.

“There has to be compromise,” he said, to make sure the environment, communities and economic health are considered to the best extent possible.

“If we don’t have a basic economy, nothing else can happen,” he said.