Douglas Meffert guest column: Time to protect coastal funding _lowres

Douglas Meffert

Six years after BP’s devastating rig explosion and oil spill, the legal battles are behind us — finally. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has approved the $20.8 billion settlement with BP for the massive environmental damages it caused the five Gulf states.

Louisiana is now poised to leverage its share, nearly $8 billion over the next 15 years — or about a half-billion dollars per year — on the largest environmental restoration program in our state’s history.

How these funds are invested affects all of us, and we need to remain vigilant to ensure Louisiana-politics-as-usual don’t squander the opportunity the money provides.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who inherited a massive deficit when he took office, has issued an executive order requiring all Louisiana agencies to support and follow the state’s comprehensive plan for coastal restoration and protection. He also committed to making sure money dedicated to coastal restoration is spent only on restoration.

Louisiana already has invested billions of dollars in coastal restoration and protection since the development of the 2007 Coastal Master Plan: More than 27,000 acres of coastal habitat have been improved, nearly 265 miles of levees have been built or upgraded and 45 miles of barrier islands and berms have been constructed.

This work is not only protecting our communities and infrastructure; it’s creating jobs here in Louisiana. Coastal restoration and protection is now the fastest-growing industry in southeast Louisiana, eclipsing oil and gas, maritime and other major industries, according to a recent report based on research by The Data Center, a New Orleans institute.

This hot job market is expected to grow even more as Louisiana begins receiving its share of the BP settlement fund.

In the fight to restore the coast, this will be our best shot at getting it right. Look at a map of Louisiana from 50 years ago — entire communities have been washed away. Unless we act now and make the right decisions, this scenario will only get worse as more communities farther north become affected by land loss and rising seas.

Getting it right also means we need to prioritize the best and most powerful restoration projects available.

At the top of the priority list is leveraging the land-building power of the Mississippi River — and the rich sand and clay it carries — to support restoration projects and return our estuaries and wetlands to healthier conditions, both for wildlife and the people that depend on them for protection.

We’ve been constructing levees and cutting off the Mississippi River from its wetlands since the first European settlers arrived centuries ago.

That has decimated our natural barriers to storms and tidal surges, leaving entire coastal communities and industries increasingly vulnerable to destructive hurricanes and other storms.

Work already is being readied for two sediment diversions, one on each side of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish — one of the areas most affected by land loss and most vulnerable to hurricanes and rising seas.

Once constructed, controlled gates and channels will open periodically to re-create the flow of sand, clay and water from the Mississippi into surrounding wetlands, helping rebuild the land. That will be critical for a sustainable future.

This BP settlement money is not enough to finish the entire job, but it’s a significant down payment toward a resilient future. Squandering it sends a message to the federal government — whose financial support we’ll need to get the job done — that we can’t be trusted to manage our coastal dollars.

We can’t short change coastal restoration. History — and future generations — will not look kindly on those who attempt to cut off Louisiana’s lifeline.

Douglas J. Meffert is executive director of Audubon Louisiana and vice president of the National Audubon Society for Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition.