In The News › Sediment diversions, La. 1 bridge on Wednesday coastal authority agenda

Oct 20, 2015

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Infrastructure, Statewide

Sediment diversions, La. 1 bridge on Wednesday coastal authority agenda

By Mark Schleifstein
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

October 20, 2015

Louisiana’s coastal authority staff will recommend Wednesday (Oct. 21) that the state move forward with the planning and design of two major diversions on the east and west banks of the Mississippi River that will direct sediment into open water areas to rebuild wetlands, setting the stage for the beginning of construction in as little as three years, the chairman of the authority said Tuesday.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board also is expected to approve a controversial policy change proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that will allow the state to use BP fine money left after coastal restoration projects are completed for construction of the unfinished Louisiana 1 bridge.

Wednesday’s meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. in House Committee Room 5 at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

CPRA chairman Chip Kline said there’s little chance any of the $930 million in civil fine money being funneled to the state through the federal Restore Act will be left after the construction of three major projects already submitted for approval to the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Council are completed. He said their construction could take 15 to 20 years, increasing the chances that no money will be left.

Those projects include salinity control structures for the Calcasieu Ship Channel, the Houma Navigation Canal Lock Hydrologic Restoration project, and the Bayou Chene Hydrologic Structure, which could reduce flooding near Morgan City.

The civil Clean Water Act fine money is being paid into the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund by BP and Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon drillship, as part of their omnibus settlement of federal, state and local lawsuits involving the 2010 oil spill.

The rule change would not apply to about $5 billion the state will receive for projects under the federal Oil Pollution Act Natural Resource Damage Assessment. The state also will receive $1 billion from the settlement for economic damages, with most of that money already committed to state budget items by the 2015 Legislature.

The LA 1 Coalition, officials in Lafourche Parish and business leaders associated with Port Fourchon have urged Jindal to make some of the BP money available for elevating the highway, which serves as the main transportation route to both the port — a key supply point for deepwater drilling operations on the Outer Continental Shelf — and Grand Isle.

They point out that Restore Act rules allow a percentage of the fine money to go to “infrastructure projects benefitting the economy or ecological resources, including port infrastructure.”

But environmental groups and some civic organizations oppose the policy, contending it will open a floodgate of demands from state legislators to spend part of the money on infrastructure in their districts, and that it could result in other states and federal agencies that sit on the Restore Act board redirecting money from projects in Louisiana to other states.

Under the Restore Act, Louisiana is guaranteed a share of 65 percent of the trust fund money, but another 30 percent will be directed by votes of the board.

On Tuesday, the New Orleans-based Bureau of Governmental Research issued a statement opposing the Jindal proposal, calling any surplus “a mirage” because the state’s coastal Master Plan is likely to see a doubling of cost, to $100 billion, when it is revised in 2017. Any extra money should go to unfunded restoration projects, it said.

“Reversing Louisiana’s land loss is the ultimate economic development project: It is essential to south Louisiana’s long-term viability,” the statement said.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana also issued a statement urging its members to contact Jindal’s office to oppose the change.

“Our state finally has significant funding to address coastal issues. But we will still need a national commitment and partnership with the federal government to access the tens of billions of additional dollars we do not have,” the statement said. “If we as a state choose to divert money meant for the coast to another purpose, we will demonstrate that the state of Louisiana cannot be trusted to be responsible stewards, and therefore is not worthy of a federal commitment.”

Kline said he recognizes that the funding controversy is threatening to drive a wedge between what has until now been unified support for the state’s coastal program. But he said it’s also clear that both federal and state law would allow use of some of the funds for infrastructure projects.

“A lot of people are saying that this is a change of policy and I can see how they say that,” he said during an interview Tuesday. “At the same time, our policy is to complete the Master Plan. Nothing in this resolution changes our commitment to the projects we’ve already announced.”

He said it’s already clear that the cost of the Bayou Chene project is likely to grow by $30 million or more from the initial estimates on which it was proposed for Restore Act funding.

“So there’s a possibility that we could actually be short for those three projects under the Restore Act,” Kline said.

The arguments over the new policy also have threatened to overshadow what was supposed to be a historic moment for the authority: the staff recommendation to move forward with at least two major diversions of sediment and freshwater from the Mississippi River to rebuild wetlands on its east and west side.

“Since the 1920s, diversions have been a concept discussed about how to deal with coastal land loss in Louisiana,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for the coastal program. This issue has been talked about, beat to death, for the last several years and we’re finally in a place where we can make the recommendation for moving forward with engineering, planning and constructing, and that’s a big deal.”

Kline said the staff will present the results of several years of environmental and economic modeling that have been used to determine whether the diversions will restore land and cause acceptable levels of risk to fisheries and the state’s economy.

The authority may decide to conduct a preliminary vote approving the staff decision to move forward with engineering and design work, or it may wait until 2017, when it would approve the budget for construction as part of that year’s Master Plan annual plan.

“There’s likely to be some sign-off or motion of support tomorrow, but not a formal resolution and vote,” Kline said.

The 2012 state Master Plan lists the cost of the Mid-Barataria diversion at $275 million, and the Mid-Breton diversion at $123 million, but those estimates were made before detailed studies were conducted that changed the size of both projects, with the Mid-Barataria project becoming smaller and the Mid-Breton project becoming larger.

It’s unclear whether officials will release updated cost estimates during Wednesday’s meeting.

Moving forward with the diversions will be opposed by some organizations representing commercial fishers, including oyster growers and shrimpers, who contend the projects will add too much fresh water to Louisiana bays, which could kill oysters and chase shrimp and fish away, or affect their reproduction.

Capt. George Ricks, a charter boat operator who is president of the Save Louisiana Coalition, said Tuesday that he’s concerned the diversions could be operated for up to five months a year, including during times coinciding with spawning seasons and when the larval stages of brown shrimp are in Louisiana wetlands.

“Our concerns also have been the nutrient overload of the river water causing degradation of the wetlands as seen at the Caernarvon diversion area,” he said. “The same nutrients that cause the dead zone in the Gulf, and also, lately, similar dead zones have been forming in Breton and Chandeleur sounds.”

The Caernarvon diversion was built to move freshwater, rather than sediment, from the river, based on a 1980s design aimed at increasing the amount of oysters growing on public oyster beds. The diversion has been blamed for killing oysters growing on state leased water bottoms closer to shore.

Some oyster growers filed suit against the state in the early 2000s because of that damage and initially won a $2 billion judgment from a Plaquemines Parish judge. But that ruling was overturned by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that under the state Constitution, the environmental benefits of the diversion took precedence.

Ricks also contends the diversions will be aimed at the wrong locations, areas where some geologists contend that geologic faulting is likely to continue a recent trend of rapid subsidence, making rebuilding of wetlands there impossible.

Today, many of that area’s oyster growers have received financial settlements from BP for damages resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Kline said the studies conducted by the state and independent reviewers give a better picture of the potential effects of the diversions.

“There will be some impacts, but they will be absolutely manageable,” he said. “We will be looking at the potentially impacted areas in detail. If we operate the structure at this time, this amount of days, where will the impacted areas be, and we will be able to show where oyster growers can obtain oyster leases where they won’t be impacted.”

A key to that process will be lifting a moratorium on issuing new oyster leases on state-owned water bottoms that’s been in place since the lawsuits.

He said the oyster growers and the oil industry have both been hesitant to support a lifting of the moratorium. He said some growers objected in recent years for fear that their BP claims might be affected by being able to grow oysters in new locations, while the oil industry is concerned that they’d have to pay damages in areas where oysters are either not being grown.

He said the state already is working on identifying the new oyster growing areas, and also expects to develop a program to assist growers in moving to the new locations.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘compensate,’ but I think you will see a willingness from the state to help growers transition into these new areas,” he said.

The two diversions recommended for work leading to the beginning of construction in 2017 would be for projects the state has labeled the Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton diversions. On the river’s east bank, one diversion would be built just south of Woodlawn, with its sediment heading east and south into Breton Sound.

On the West Bank, a diversion would be built near Myrtle Grove, with the sediment funneled west into central Barataria Bay.

Kline said the state would still continue work on proposed diversions farther south on the east and west sides of the river, though it’s becoming clear that an early plan for lower Breton Sound may not be successful.

“We could see that one fall out in 2017, but there’s still a possibility of other diversions (on the east side of the river) being called for.

The diversions would be operated to move no more than 75,000 cubic feet per second of sediment and water into the receiving bays, but would not be operated at that level year-round. In earlier presentations to the authority, scientists working on the projects have said the diversions are likely to be operated at full flow only during high-river years, and it’s likely that their flows will be staged to both take advantage of capturing the most sediment and causing the smallest impact on fisheries.

Kline said that scientists will work with the corps, fishers and other stakeholders on operating plans for each diversion as they are being built. The state must gain the corps’ approval for the structure’s operations because of its potential to affect the way sediment builds up in the river’s navigation channel, which could affect shipping.

As momentous as a decision to move forward with the first diversions seems, there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to be done, including gaining approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers for permits assuring the projects comply with Clean Water Act regulations, including an extensive environmental review of their potential effects on wildlife and their habitat.

The corps must also approve permits allowing the projects to be built through river and hurricane levees.

“The permit process won’t start until engineering and design is about 60 percent complete,” Kline said. “You’re probably looking at 2 to 3 years before construction begins.”

Kline said he believes the state will have enough money to pay for the first two diversions, with some money coming from criminal fines paid by BP and Transocean that are under the control of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The criminal settlement dedicated about $1.2 billion of the fine money to diversions and rebuilding barrier islands in Louisiana. That money is not subject to the policy change proposed by Jindal.

Oct 20, 2015

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Infrastructure, Statewide

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