'Louisiana's moment' for coastal restoration, protection: Gov. Edwards

May 31, 2018

"I actually believe this is Louisiana's moment," Gov. John Bel Edwards told those attending the 2018 State of the Coast conference on coastal restoration and hurricane protection in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Edwards said that with as much as $20 billion in BP oil spill-related money and offshore revenue guaranteed to the state over the next 15 years, the state is finally positioned to pay for a number of major projects included in the state's $50 billion, 50-year Coastal Master Plan.

"I've been governor now for just over two years and despite all the challenges we've had to face, I want you to know that I am an optimist about the state of Louisiana, generally and about our ability to do meaningful work around coastal restoration and protection, and I think you all are too," Edwards said in a speech keynoting the three-day conference. "We have to be."

But his comments were tempered with the realism of a rapidly-eroding coastline that poses an existential threat to communities outside major levee systems, and the threat of encroaching Gulf of Mexico waters and higher storm surge for the leveed communities.

"Mayor, the hurricane protection system is better than its ever been, but it is not designed to have the Gulf of Mexico lapping at the base of the levees," Edwards told New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who opened the morning plenary session with welcoming remarks. "So we still have a lot of work to do in Louisiana."

"Our ability to meet our coastal challenges from every angle, with every type of support, and without partisanship that seems to divide us on every other important issue is a strength that we can never take for granted in Louisiana. Simply put, the stakes are too high," Edwards said.

He repeated a warning stressed by officials with the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, who oversee Master Plan projects, that restoration efforts will not restore the coast to the way it was shaped in the past, or even be able to keep up with today's erosion rates.

"We know that a generation from now, things along the coast will be very different and in many cases much more difficult than they are today," Edwards said. "And as things look today, some of the areas along our coast will be unable to build land faster than the Gulf of Mexico is able to take it away. And the worst case scenario from just a few years ago in some ways has now become the best case scenario.

"Underscoring what has been told to you all several times already this morning. We are in a race against time. We don't have a day to waste," he said.

But Edwards said the past work on restoration and hurricane protection, dating back four governors, has made Louisiana an international leader in coastal restoration, levees and water resource work. Gone are the days when the state has to rely on the Netherlands for that kind of expertise.

"With this new era with our coastal program, we're going to write our own book, we're going to make our own case that the state of Louisiana is indeed on par with the great managers of water around the world," he said.

Edwards also threw a warning to critics of some of the state's biggest proposed restoration projects, the Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton Sediment Diversions, which have been opposed by a number of St. Bernard and Plaquemines elected officials and by many who make a living off shrimp and oysters harvested from the waters of Barataria Bay and Breton Sound.

"You know that as our active plan becomes less academic and theoretical and more real, you're actually going to hear from some people who are going to try and knock us off course," Edwards said. "We cannot allow that to happen.

"Our plan was developed upon science and we must allow science to guide our efforts going forward and we have to be resolute," he said. "Not only are we breaking new ground by constructing some of the largest and most impressive restoration and protection features anywhere on earth, but we're also setting the new standard for improving the infrastructure permit and review process nationwide. And I want to remind everyone ... while we're pushing to streamline the process, we're not going to cut corners."

Edwards said the state also has made a good start on addressing communities outside major levee systems that remain threatened by water and land loss issues, pointing to the federally-funded move inland of most members of the Isle de Jean Charles community and the creation of LASAFE, a program aimed at helping local communities address risk reduction issues, including by planning for voluntary relocations out of flood zones.

And Edwards pointed out that the two major floods of 2016, one in the early spring and the other in August, sounded a warning that the state must also address interior flooding issues. He pointed out that 56 of the 64 state parishes were declared federal disaster areas for one or the other of those flood events, neither of which was caused by a named storm.

The State of the Coast conference, sponsored by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the Water Institute of the Gulf and CPRA, is held every two years and serves as a vehicle for scientists, engineers, businesses, and environmental groups to update the public on the status of the state's Master Plan and other restoration and hurricane protection issues.