La. coast is getting a mixed bag

The two faces of May are enough to drive most anglers batty, but this veteran guide’s tactics for finding fish work across the coast.

There’s good news and not-so-good news.The good news is that wetland restoration projects are going to construction at an extremely rapid rate. Combining all funding sources (primarily the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act and the Water Resources Development Act) in the past two years, 22 projects costing a combined total of about $189 million were under construction. Those projects are expected to protect or restore more than 64,000 acres of marsh from erosion.

For comparison’s sake, during the previous 10 years, the restoration agencies averaged the expenditure of about $22 million per year. While spending more money doesn’t necessarily mean we are restoring or protecting more marsh, such is probably the case.

More good news is that some of the bigger-ticket projects that benefit greater acreages or more important land features are expected to go to construction in 2004.

Last year, the CWPPRA Task Force authorized the two biggest projects ever designed under CWPPRA. This includes the approximately $30 million marsh creation and shoreline protection project in the vicinity of Little Lake (in the Barataria Basin) and the $60 million barrier island restoration effort east of Grand Terre.

The not-so-good news is that all this construction has pretty much depleted the leftover available CWPPRA funds that had stockpiled over the last 13 years. We are now limited to constructing about $55 million worth of projects annually as the CWPPRA program receives its yearly funding allotment from Congress.

But that’s good news too. According to staff at the Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), every time they have tried to make the case to Congress that more money was needed, it was pointed out that we had yet to spend everything we had received. Now that the books should show a zero balance, maybe Louisiana can be more successful in its lobbying efforts.

More not-so-good news is that the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) feasibility study, being funded jointly by LDNR and the corps, has been held up and may not make the time deadline to be included in the 2004 Water Resources Development Act submittal to Congress.

The LCA study was intended to be the vehicle to make the case to Congress that Louisiana’s wetlands deserved the same, if not more, consideration and concern (and funding) as did Florida’s Everglades.

A few years ago, Congress authorized $8 billion for expenditure on the Everglades under a study effort somewhat similar to the LCA study, and Louisiana is hoping for the same consideration for protection and restoration of its wetlands.

The corps and state agencies have been informed by Washington-level staff that some major changes needed to be made to the LCA report. The good news is that the various federal agencies and LDNR think the necessary changes can be made in time to meet the deadline for submittal (early June).

More good news is that the proposed fiscal year 2005 budget recently released by the Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) includes funding to address the wetland-loss issue. That $8 million is approximately one-tenth of the overall corps general initiatives budget. Getting that kind of recognition is felt by many to be a good thing.

Directives included within the proposed OMB budget direct the corps to reissue the draft LCA report and, in doing so, to identify critical ecological needs and propose a near-term (5- to 10-year) program of highly effective projects.

The corps is also being directed to begin developing studies of potentially promising long-term restoration projects.

It is anticipated that much of the OMB-proposed funding ($16 million after the state adds its matching funds) will be used to pay for environmental analyses and engineering and design of some of the more difficult and complex projects. That way, if significant funds do eventually come to Louisiana to fund wetland-restoration projects, Louisiana can move to construction pretty rapidly. And that’s a good thing…

Some of the larger projects being considered under the LCA funding umbrella include diversions of the Mississippi River into Breton Sound and the Lake Pontchartrain, Barataria and Terrebonne basins.

At this time, projects on the near-term list include: 1) a diversion into bottomland hardwoods and cypress swamp near Lake Maurepas; 2) replacing or fixing the Bayou Lamoque structure (this would allow the diversion of a significant amount of water into Breton Sound); and, 3) diversions into the Barataria Basin in the vicinity of Myrtle Grove and Fort Jackson.

The largest and certainly most expensive diversion is one that could divert up to 300,000 cubic feet per second of Mississippi River water in a channel paralleling Bayou Lafourche. The LDNR has funded an evaluation of such a project, and so far, the design contractor has determined it is engineeringly feasible.

Such a project, as it is presently envisioned, would have two channels, one that dumps water and sediment into Barataria Bay east of Bayou Lafourche and another that crosses Bayou Lafourche with a final ending point in the vicinity of Lake Raccourci.

Considering the complexity and cost of the project and the potential impacts of all that fresh water and sediment on fishery species, construction of what’s called the “Third Delta” project is probably a long time away. As such, it’s near the top of the COE’s list for study as a long-term restoration project.

Richard Hartman is the leader of the Louisiana Habitat Conservation Division office of NOAA Fisheries.

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