Louisiana was still struggling to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in November 2007 when it received its best coastal news ever: Congress had authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work on 15 coastal restoration projects with a total price tag of $1.6 billion — overriding a veto by President George W. Bush to make it happen.
Coastal advocates rejoiced. The federal government was finally going to help with the state’s Master Plan for the Coast, which has since become a 50-year, $50 billion strategy considered the last, best hope for saving most of southeast Louisiana from sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.
Seven years later, the record of that bill seems to be an abject failure.
That’s because congressional authorization is just the initial step in a lengthy process typically involving more study of the engineering, design, costs and efficacy of the final product. Even if a project makes it through those processes, it still must get money appropriated — which requires a separate act of Congress and the president’s signature.
Congress has yet to appropriate a single dollar to fund the 2007 projects as originally envisioned, and the Corps now lists 11 of the 15 as “suspended by the state.” Three others were “never initiated,” according to Corps documents.
However, the state has managed to move forward on some of the projects thanks to an infusion of cash for coastal projects resulting from the BP oil spill. National political struggles and advances in coastal science also have altered the course of the projects.
“Nothing is ever simple with these authorizations,” said Kyle Graham, executive director of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the Corps’ state partner on these projects. “And in this case, there are all kinds of factors that have resulted in changes.”
In 2007, Louisiana had reason to hope the money would come. Congress was still ruled by Democrats, who took a more expansive view of infrastructure spending, and the state put up $300,000 toward its $578 million share of construction costs.
But a few months after the bill passed, the nation entered its most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression, and Congress tightened spending. It got even tighter when Republicans took over control of the House in 2010.
President Barack Obama, elected in 2008, became the first president to include a Louisiana coastal project in an administration budget, but his two attempts to secure approximately $38 million never made it out of the House.
Meanwhile, Louisiana was beginning to have second thoughts about some of the projects proposed in that 2007 legislation.
The shock of the devastation caused by the two 2005 storms prompted the Legislature to create the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, putting all coastal efforts under one agency for the first time.
Its resulting Master Plan for the Coast set specific criteria for projects. Several of those in the 2007 bill didn’t pass muster under those guidelines. Some were judged poor values for the state’s scarce dollars, and others were scaled down or merged.
The cost estimates for some projects also soared.
For example, the $278.3 million price tag that Congress put on the Myrtle Grove Diversion in 2007 is now estimated to be $600 million to $800 million, Graham said. The White Ditch Diversion, originally priced at $86.1 million, is now pushing $300 million.
Graham said the canceled projects and the costs were not necessarily the result of poor judgment on the part of the state or Corps back in 2007.
A lot more knowledge
“Some of these projects were first proposed back in 2000, and when you think about the advances in coastal science since then — what we know about our dynamic coast — we just have a lot more knowledge,” Graham said. “And now we’re working with a Master Plan, with specific goals, and everything we do has to fit into those guidelines. Just because a project is authorized doesn’t mean it’s the best use of the state’s dollars. We don’t have to build it — we shouldn’t build it — if we find out it’s not going to meet that standard.”
One example, Graham said, was the state’s decision to pull out of projects that called for modifications of the Caernarvon and Davis Pond freshwater diversions, which Congress authorized at $84.9 million. After the state had poured about $4 million into the studies, it decided the Corps’ goal did not line up with a guiding Master Plan objective of rebuilding wetlands. It suspended the programs rather than set aside its $29.7 million share of the cost.
“We wanted to see how we could move more sediment through these diversions, which we now know would mean modifying the structures — making them deeper, for one thing,” Graham said. “But we realized the Corps was only looking at modifying the flow regime. So they were looking at paperwork, and we were looking at construction. We would be wasting state money if we continued.”
By 2010, it was becoming obvious there wouldn’t be much, if any, money coming from Congress for construction. With the Master Plan requiring spending about $1 billion per year for 50 years to stay ahead of subsidence and rising sea levels, the future was looking bleak.
Then a disaster provided a temporary solution.
Money flows in
Although the environmental and economic costs exacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill are still being tabulated, the disaster has provided a major infusion of money, allowing the state to move forward in the face of a recalcitrant Congress.
The settlement of criminal fines in 2012 placed $1.2 billion in a trust held by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for use only on Louisiana sediment diversions and barrier island restoration — two initiatives central to the Master Plan.
BP also was persuaded to disperse up to $1 billion in 2011 to advance what is expected to be billions more in restitution due to Louisiana for damages under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment.
And in a trial now wrapping up, BP and Anadarko, a minority owner of the oil rig, face up to $13.7 billion in fines for violating the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of the total will be distributed to the five coastal states under the provisions of the RESTORE Act. Louisiana could see as much as $767 million immediately, with hundreds of millions more for other projects in the years ahead.
In the face of congressional inaction, those windfalls have given the state some freedom to pursue its goals.
For example, if final research later this year results in approval for the sediment diversion at Myrtle Grove, the state will not have to wait years for Congress to fund what could be a $500 million project. It has the money from the criminal settlement to move into construction.
Freedom to choose
The Deepwater Horizon windfall also has allowed the state to pick and choose projects.
“Given the political realities (in Washington), we have chosen, in some cases, not to set aside matching funds for projects that might not be funded for years, if ever,” Graham said. “Why park money in these projects for years, when we can be using it now for higher priorities?”
But the potential windfall from the Deepwater Horizon also has a downside: It makes lobbying Congress for funding even more difficult.
“When we go there asking for funding, they say, ‘Hey, you’ve got billions coming from BP. Wait until you spend that before coming to us,’ ” Graham said.
That may have been one reason the House killed the president’s funding attempts.
Graham isn’t optimistic the new Congress will be any more sympathetic.
“The Corps has indicated to us that we can’t expect more than about $210 million a year in funding,” he said. “That’s based on the history of what Congress has been doing for other large ecosystem projects, such as the Everglades (restoration) and Great Lakes. So, that’s what we’re planning on.”
Even though the state has put many of the 2007 projects in mothballs, Graham says authorization remains important.
“The authorization never goes away, so we always have the opportunity to work with the Corps to use that,” he said.