Coastal restoration on the cheap

Some levee districts are doing more with less

Coyotes aren’t the first animals that come to mind when Louisianians think about species benefitting from coastal restoration. Nonetheless, South Lafourche Levee District President Windell Curole said the 40-plus-mile stretch of levee that runs from Larose to Golden Meadow and back is inundated with them.

Sure, coyotes can be a nuisance and they’re putting a dent in the local rabbit population, but they’re in part proof that Curole is doing his job.

That’s because, through a cost-efficient comprehensive restoration project, expanses of the marsh along the levee — particularly out toward Catfish Lake — have reverted from subsidence to the prairie-like environment of 50 years ago.

Curole thinks the coyotes were stowaways on a shipment of pipeline materials from East Texas and reproduced when they came ashore in south Lafourche.

Aside from the coyotes, this particular part of the levee near Catfish Lake is thriving; on one side homes are protected from rising waters, and on the other the levee is guarded from erosion and wave action by the marsh that’s being developed.

“It’s not a big deal when it comes to hurricanes,” Curole said, “but outside of hurricanes, which is 365 days a year, you get wave action that’ll eat (the levee) up, because it wasn’t designed to have open water against the levee.”

The project cost less than $20,000 an acre, which is amazingly cost effective. Comparable projects orchestrated by the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers usually run much higher tabs, from $70,000 an acre on the lower end of the range to as much as $300,000 an acre.

But the expanse out by Catfish Lake was the ideal spot for a restoration project, Curole added, because it was broken marsh, where marsh grasses look like hair plugs on a doll’s head bordered by open water. That’s where, Curole said, “a little bit of new material is like Miracle-Gro.”

Those shallow spots also need much less sediment for roots to take hold. Not every inch of wetland is suitable for this kind of restoration, Curole said.

Officials were able to accomplish the project so cheaply because they took dirt from a nearby bayou in a marsh-friendly manner, by making underwater terraces that will also slow wave action. And they were able to borrow the primary piece of equipment free of charge.

The project produced more marsh than projected, outgrowing the containment dike that was to keep the project from washing away by 30 acres, Curole said.

One of Curole’s secrets involves looking for counsel in unlikely places.

“I talk to the scientists,” Curole said. “I talk to the researchers. But I also talk to the fishermen. What I find is (that) the local people, the local fisherman, they are in the marsh all the time.”

Curole said he relies on local knowledge to decide where and how to go about improvement projects.

“Fisherman are good at the whats,” Curole said, meaning that they know what happens everyday in the marsh. “They are very good at watching what’s happening, what they see, what the water depths are.

“The why is where they are not as accurate, but I’ve got the scientists to tell me the why.”

Curole said part of his philosophy on coastal restoration involves smaller projects the levee board can take on without relying on the state and federal governments. For the most part, the local board can’t do anything without permits from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service and a handful of other state and federal departments and agencies.

This becomes obvious as he took part in a conference call with representatives from several of these agencies to talk about another set of unrelated restoration project. One voice came from his phone, and it was a little snarky.

“While the government was shutdown, we actually approved all your permits, so we don’t need to have this conversation,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

Curole, with an unmistakable Cajun accent, replied without hesitation: “While the government was shutdown, we actually built all of the things we’re talking about, so we don’t need to have this conversation, either.”

Both parties paused before breaking into laughter, easing the tension that was clearly building.

Curole doesn’t want to sidestep authorities, but he said pleasing them isn’t a priority. For example, the Larose to Golden Meadow levee isn’t on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps, but it’s a system in which he has confidence.

“It has to stand up to FEMA and it has to stand up the Corps, yes,” Curole said, “but ultimately all it has to stand up to is the water.”

This way of thinking isn’t unique to Lafourche Parish.

Reggie Dupre, a former state senator and the president of the neighboring levee district in Terrebonne Parish, has found ways to build levees at a fourth of the cost of the Corps.

Dupre said his board once contracted an 18-mile levee in Chauvin for $20 million — $1.1 million per mile. The Corps, he pointed out, finished a six-mile levee of the same height in a comparable environment in Grand Caillou just before the Chauvin project.

The cost: $25 million, or $4 million per mile.

Dupre was quick to credit Curole’s mentorship, noting Curole “wrote the book” on cost-effective restoration. That book, for what its worth, advises keeping projects small and local to benefit the economy as much as the coast.

That’s why Dupre said his board splits up projects to keep costs low and encourage competitive bidding. It also opens bids on materials, not just labor.

“The market is right,” Dupre said. “It’s a perfect storm for public-works projects. We have the money and hungry contractors.”

As the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a member of the CPRA, Rep. Gordon Dove (R-Houma) said the state does what they can to ensure a project is cost effective. The CPRA also slices up projects to smaller contracts when they can, he said, moving along smaller pieces of a larger effort so protection hits the ground sooner and benefits local economies.

But the difference between big government boards and local levee boards is that members who serve on the latter have to face their neighbors each day and prepare in the same manner when storms are approaching.

“We don’t think of ourselves as just a levee board; we’re here to help the community,” Curole said. “The biggest help is keeping the water from getting in homes, but it’s still about the community.

“My people are here because they’re fishermen.”

It’s no big secret that marsh projects like the ones Curole champions help improve fish habitats. But he tries to go a step further, incorporating boat launches into his plans. He’s been able to do this twice recently.

Dupre said it’s just another important section from the “Gospel according to Windell,” which is a case study in cost-effective coastal restoration. And he said that there’s one particular “Windellism” worth remembering, one that endears him to locals and sums up his mission.

“We’d rather have mud on the bank than money in bank,” Dupre intoned.

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