America's WETLAND Forum Gets Early Look at Gulf Report to President
Recommendations Expected to Urge Using River Sediment,
Expediting Permitting Process to Rebuild Coastal Wetlands
HOUMA, Louisiana -- The long-awaited report by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to be released next week will include recommendations that the federal government find ways to use Mississippi River sediment to rebuild wetlands and barrier islands, said executive director John Hankinson at today's America's WETLAND Blue Ribbon Resilient Communities Forum.
The forum was attended by more than 100 Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish officials, stakeholders, citizen groups, conservationists and industry representatives.
In addition, the Task Force will recommend creation of an interagency working group of federal agencies to expedite the permitting process for approving restoration projects, Hankinson said.
The report of the Task Force will also recommend that the federal government follow the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority's master plan for saving coastal Louisiana. "We've got lots of plans," said Hankinson, who also complimented coastal efforts by the State of Mississippi. "What we need is a focused effort to get restoration moving here in the Gulf."
Hankinson said the Task Force will be working immediately to try to improve coordination with federal and state agencies. "We are recommending, after the first of the year, the creation of an interagency working group so we can better address these projects," he said. "The power of the Task Force is that we have not only the federal agencies, but also the state agencies working together. When we run into a problem, we can hopefully resolve it with the agencies involved. Ultimately, coordination in terms of trying to seek funds is going to be a key function going forward."
Hankinson also expressed interest in exploring opportunities for more public-private cooperation in coastal restoration projects. Valsin A. Marmillion, Managing Director of the America's WETLAND Foundation, asked whether federal officials might consider tax credits, rebates or other incentives to help finance coastal projects and encourage participation by landowners.
Hankinson replied, "There hasn't been enough talk about how to encourage private participation in restoration efforts and I'm very interested in that area. There are some opportunities for private participation I'd like to see come forward."
"We are very pleased the report mirrors so many recommendations that we have made," Marmillion said, "particularly on reconnecting the river with the marshes it created over time until the levees cut it off in the 1930s, setting coastal erosion in motion."
"The report really lays out our concerns about the wetlands loss," Hankinson said. "We recommend better utilization of sediments to replenish the wetlands and the sand barrier islands," he said. The sediment can come from beneficial use of dredge materials, river diversions, "anywhere we can get it," Hankinson said.
Hankinson's task force consists of representatives from 11 federal agencies and representatives of the five Gulf of Mexico states. The report will be posted online at www.restorethegulf.gov next Wednesday, Oct. 5, with directions as to how to make comments.
"We'll have three weeks for the public to make comment on it before we send it to the White House," Hankinson said.
Hankinson said the America's WETLAND Foundation's Blue Ribbon Resilient Community Forums, a series of 12 meetings over 18 months across the Gulf Coast "is really parallel to what we've been working on. Meetings like this one will continue to have input into what we are doing."
The four major goals laid out in the task force report to be made public next week are habitat restoration and conservation, water quality restoration, marine and coastal resources and resiliency of coastal communities, Hankinson said.
In other presentations at the America's WETLAND forum, Jerome Zeringue of the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, said his agency is completing the revisions of the state master plan due in 2012.
"This is the first of Louisiana's plan that will address specific projects," Zeringue said. "We want the plan to be both realistic and achievable."
Donald Boesch, president and professor, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, said billions in federal assistance is going to be difficult.
"There is this whole new national debate about our financial situation," Boesch said. "It is a new environment you have to deal with."
Because of costs, not everything can be saved or protected, he said. "You have to make the hard decisions," Boesch said.
Terrebonne Levee District director Reggie Dupre said local residents know what needs to be done, but they need federal help. "We are not asking for a hand-out. We're asking for a helping hand," Dupre said.
Patty Whitney of the Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organization that works with Native American groups, said those in low-lying areas that may be sacrificed "should have a voice in what happens to them."
It's time "to tell the truth to those communities that we cannot save," she said. "I really think the state bird should be changed to the ostrich," Whitney said. "We keep putting our head in the sand and pretending that we can't see the water that is coming up on our backs."
Jeff Williams of Entergy presented findings of a $4.2 million Entergy-America's WETLAND Foundation study conducted by the electric utility that showed losses of assets on the Gulf Coast could top $350 billion over the next 20 years. "The average annual losses are $14 billion," Williams said. "There are cost effective measures we can take to reduce those losses," he said.