Environment
 

State coastal agency says midyear budget cuts could delay restoration projects

How could a potential $3.8 million budget cut to the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority end up costing $8 million?

Because the lack of funds could cause the state to renege on its required match for joint projects with the federal government, increasing their cost by millions.

That was one of the outcomes suggested by the coastal agency, already reeling from $12 million in cuts over the last three years, if it takes another hit this year.

There also could be costly delays in engineering, design and construction of other projects that are part of the Coastal Master Plan, Louisiana’s 50-year effort to protect the bottom third of the state. That area is sinking as the Gulf of Mexico is rising because of human-caused global warming.

The agency estimated the impact of another budget cut in response to a proposal by state Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), the leader of the Republican House delegation, to cut $304 million in spending to close a state budget shortfall.

Even if the state’s plan to protect the coast achieves all its goals, the coast will still shrink 1,200 to 2,800 square miles, depending on how much the Gulf rises.

Those results are based on building projects on a specific schedule over the next 40 years — which the budget cuts could delay. Scientists say delays will be measured in land lost because the Gulf will continue to rise and the land will continue to sink.

“We can’t budget year-to-year for these projects,” said Janice Lansing, the coastal agency’s chief financial officer. “We have to budget long-term because of the planning, design and engineering that are required even before we start construction.”

“So these cuts might save the state a little today, but they could end up costing us a lot in extra spending in the future, and in less we can achieve for the coast,” she said.

One of the projects that could be delayed is on the eastern edge of New Orleans. The state plans to build a rock dike along the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline and fill in marshland in the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge.

A constitutional amendment that protects the agency’s funding from other uses allows the governor and the Legislature to siphon off up to 5 percent to deal with a deficit in the general fund.

Harris has proposed trimming about $9.3 million from the Executive Department, which typically spreads the pain among its agencies. One of them is the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which says its share is likely to be $3.8 million this time.

“When you add that to the $3.1 million we’ve already been cut this fiscal year, it begins to affect programs that are already underway,” Lansing said. “These cuts are not cuts just to salaries or positions. It’s to the work we’re trying to do for the coast.”

A coalition of environmental groups working with the state on the coastal plan sent a letter to Gov. Edwards on Monday urging him to reject the cut.

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