Louisiana was still struggling to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in November 2007 when it received its best ever coastal news: The 110th Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to work on 15 coastal restoration projects with a total price tag of $1.6 billion for the state’s coastal projects – overriding a veto by President George W. Bush to make it happen.
Coastal advocates rejoiced. The nation was finally going to help the state with its 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, at least at first glance.
Despite giving the corps’ the go-ahead in concept, Congress has not sent a single penny to build those projects. The corps lists 11 of the 15 as “suspended by the state.” Three others were “never initiated,’ according to corps documents.
Yet somehow Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the nation, is moving forward on some of the projects with total costs pushing $1 billion.
The story of how this happened is a twisting tale with chapters on the local effects of national political struggles, the Deepwater Horizon disaster and advances in coastal science.
“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.”
Congressional authorization is just the initial step in a lengthy process typically involving more study into 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.
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 dollars 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 the House in 2010.
President Obama, elected in 2008, became the first president to include a Louisiana coastal project in an administration budget, but his two attempts for approximately $38 million each 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 hurricanes Katrina and Rita 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 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 had also soared from the 2007 authorizations. The $278.3 million price tag Congress put on the Myrtle Grove Diversion in 2007 is now estimated to be $600 to $800 million, Graham said. The White Ditch Diversion, priced at $86.1 million in 2007 is now pushing $300 million.
Graham said the cancelled projects and the costs were not necessarily the result of poor judgment on the part of the state or corps back in 2007.
“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,” explained Graham. “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 built 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 Caernarvon and Davis Pond freshwater diversions which Congress authorized at $84.9 million. But 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.
“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,” he 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.”
And 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 sea level rise, the future was looking bleak.
Then a disaster provided a temporary solution.
Although the environmental and economic costs exacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill are still be tabulated, it 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 was also 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 currently 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, and hundreds of millions more for other projects in the years ahead
In the face of congressional inaction, those windfalls have also given the state greater 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.
The Deepwater Horizon windfall has also 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 new congresses 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 that authorization remains important.
“The authorization never goes away, so we always have the opportunity to work with the corps to use that,” he said.