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As clock ticks down, advocates urge state to find new funding for coastal restoration

Submerged aquatic vegetation, a key indicator of freshwater marsh health, is in abundance in the waters of Bay Denesse on Sept. 12, 2022, where efforts to cut small crevasses and build terraces have led to new land. Bay Denesse connects to the new, larger Mississippi River crevasse known as Neptune Pass on Plaquemines Parish's east bank.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
Submerged aquatic vegetation, a key indicator of freshwater marsh health, is in abundance in the waters of Bay Denesse on Sept. 12, 2022, where efforts to cut small crevasses and build terraces have led to new land. Bay Denesse connects to the new, larger Mississippi River crevasse known as Neptune Pass on Plaquemines Parish's east bank.

A big question looms over Louisiana’s effort to restore its rapidly eroding coastline.

Billions of dollars in settlement money procured from oil giant BP, which the company was forced to pay in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, has been the main source of coastal restoration funding to date. But that money is set to run out in 2031.

So, how will the state continue to fund its comprehensive, $50 billion plan to reduce land loss? On Wednesday, coastal advocates urged state officials to find out.

In a new policy brief, three researchers from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette concluded that coastal restoration projects grow more expensive and less effective the longer they take to implement.

“With regard to the Coastal Master Plan,” said Stephen Barnes, executive director of the Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center and one of the researchers on the brief,” once we've identified beneficial projects, we need to be ready to move and move quickly.”

Rising prices aren’t the only cause for urgency. As various environmental factors like global sea-level rise and subsidence accelerate, the brief emphasizes that the state faces a “closing window of opportunity,” according to National Wildlife Federation Senior Advisor for Resilience Charles Sutcliffe.

“The coast doesn't have time for us to have a gap in funding in 2031, so we have to have ways to keep up the pace that we're on now,” Sutcliffe said during a news conference on Wednesday. Sutcliffe served as Louisiana’s first Chief Resilience Officer under the John Bel Edwards administration.

He said the state is searching for new funding streams, including by exploring the potential of selling carbon credits to incentivize corporations to pay for marsh-building projects. A Louisiana delegation is also traveling to Capitol Hill soon to advocate for increasing the state’s share of revenue generated by oil and gas leases underthe Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA. But he doesn’t expect either of these efforts to fill the gap that will be left when the BP settlement money runs out in seven years.

“We need to keep working on the things that we've done, but we can't take anything off the table. We need to be adding more possible solutions,” Sutcliffe said.

The policy brief summarizes the known benefits of restoring Louisiana’s fragile coastline, which has lost about 2,000 square miles of wetlands since the 1930s — an area about the size of Delaware. The researchers noted that coastal marshes help the state’s seafood industry thrive, provide a local food source, benefit mental health through recreation and reduce storm damage.

According to the brief, the state stands to lose another 3,000 square miles of land in the next 50 years if no action is taken, which could result in up to $258 billion in economic disruption and property damage from hazards like storms that could otherwise be avoided.

The brief was commissioned by the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, a partnership of five environmental organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, that advocates for coastal restoration in Louisiana.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition and WWNO & WRKF's Coastal Desk receive funding from the Walton Family Foundation. WWNO/WRKF's journalism is conducted independently of funders.

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Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.