Organizers of a new coastal restoration project hope to show how these kind of projects can be done swiftly and somewhat cheaply through private investment, rather than solely depending on government to lead the way.
A demonstration project to reinforce a small portion of shoreline in Lafourche Parish next year also will help identify stumbling blocks to attracting private financing and show that it has real possibilities in the coastal restoration game.
It’s part of a larger effort by the America’s Wetland Foundation to work on ways to get private money invested in coastal restoration work, especially in areas that don’t top the priority lists in state or federal plans.
“Our worry as a foundation is coastal restoration,” said Val Marmillion, America’s Wetland Foundation’s managing director. “We want to see more restoration, and we want it quickly.”
In early November, the America’s Wetland Foundation brought together private landowners, state and federal representatives, business leaders, investment bankers and the oil and gas industry to talk about new ways of getting restoration projects done.
The predominant thinking about restoration work is that it’s done either by a government agency or by certain nonprofit groups like Ducks Unlimited or the Nature Conservancy.
The America’s Wetland Foundation is trying to expand that thinking by showing how coastal restoration can be packaged, sold and built through private investment, such as private equity firms that broker credits based off the restoration work.
“It’s the perfect opportunity for the private sector to get involved,” said Sidney Coffee, a foundation senior adviser. It would be especially valuable for parishes that may not be significantly included in the state’s master plan, such as areas in central Louisiana like Terrebonne Parish, she said.
“It’s not that people are against what we are talking about; it’s just that it’s not prioritized for funding,” Marmillion agreed. “We don’t think there’s time on the clock for most of these areas.”
The highest-profile private project, expected to cost about $180 million, involves a marsh creation effort on the East Orleans Land Bridge, which is spearheaded by Ecosystem Investment Partners, a firm that specializes in this kind of work. The idea is that once the work is complete, the firm can sell mitigation credits to companies seeking to offset the damage they do to other wetlands.
Mitigation banks like that one, incentives to make it easier for private landowners to do restoration work themselves and a concept for a coastal exchange are all parts of the mix in tapping private dollars to help fix the coast.
The coastal exchange essentially would be a list of potential projects or concepts for restoration that companies could choose to build, either for a profit or because their boards are demanding companies expand their portfolios of environmental projects, Marmillion explained.
Other potential private funding sources could be from companies or investment bankers that want to add an environmental project to their portfolio, Marmillion said.
“There are monies internationally that want to chase environmental projects,” he said.
As the state continues work on a 50-year, $50 billion master plan for coastal restoration and protection, private investment could be one avenue to get projects done, said Jerome Zeringue, the governor’s executive assistant for coastal activities.
“We’ve always viewed mitigation banking or private investment in restoration as one of the many tools to reverse land loss,” he said.
There even could be opportunities for private dollars to “piggy-back” on a state coastal restoration project to help increase the impact, he said.
As someone who lives in Terrebonne Parish, Zeringue said, he appreciates the efforts in the area. However, as the man in charge of state coastal work, Zeringue said he knows the reason there are so few projects in areas of lower Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes in the master plan isn’t because they’re not needed. Instead, a lack of sediment sources means projects in those areas are very expensive and won’t last as long as projects built in other areas.
In the future, if a project to divert more of the Atchafalaya River flow into the area comes to fruition, that situation could change, allowing more focus in this middle part of the state, he said.
In the meantime, as a way to demonstrate the possibilities of private investment and to work out potential problems with the process, the wetlands foundation is spearheading a small project in Lafourche Parish next year. The project in the Larose area would reinforce a section of the shoreline where the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway meets Bayou Lafourche.
There are miles and miles of the waterway that haven’t been shored up against erosion, and as a result, it has spread wider. In some places, that means the wetlands are exposed to wave action and additional erosion possibilities.
“We’re trying to demonstrate this stuff can be done in a fraction of the time,” Marmillion said.
In the Larose area, there is a 4-mile section on the northern shore of the Gulf Intracoastal that the foundation wants to stabilize at a cost of about $1 million a mile. How much of that 4-mile section the group includes in the project will depend on how much money can be raised through private partners.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.