Members of the Committee, my name is Jerome Zeringue, I live in Houma Louisiana, and I am the Executive Director of the Terrebonne Levee & Conservation District. I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today, and I welcome you to south Louisiana where a sinking feeling is not just an emotion but also an unpleasant fact.
In Terrebonne Parish, we are losing our land, our resources, and our communities due to coastal land loss resulting primarily from subsidence, sea level rise, and salt water intrusion. Terrebonne Parish is the largest coastal community most exposed and vulnerable to the effects of high tides, high winds, tropical storms, and hurricanes. In any given year, we face a 60% - 65% chance of a ‘named’ storm making landfall and impacting our state, and a 25% - 30% chance of a hurricane making landfall or affecting Louisiana.
Terrebonne Parish has some of the most ecologically significant and productive habitat in the world. We have two of the top ten seafood docks in the United States in terms of dollar value and poundage harvested. We have oil and gas infrastructure that is vital to the state and the federal economy. We have an increasing population and tax base with a healthy and productive economy. Frankly, we have people, infrastructure, and wetlands that need and deserve protection.
I have worked for Louisiana State University as a fisheries biologist, I have worked for a non-profit environmental organization, the Nature Conservancy, and now with the levee district, a career path that on the surface may appear somewhat convoluted and disconnected, but in reality, considering the problems we face, a fortunate series of events. It has afforded me an opportunity to view the issues affecting our state from an academic, business, and environmental perspective; all of which must work together to turn back current trends and very dire predictions.
Academically, we should deal with coastal land loss with practical research, capable of complementing and enhancing desperately needed projects. The academic community must work cooperatively to implement projects and share information with a focus on constructive research, not conducting studies simply for their intrinsic scientific value. Projects must be put on the ground to stem the ravaging effects that subsidence, sea-level rise and salt water intrusion impart continuously, even now as we discuss, debate, and study these issues.
Fixing our problems will require the environmental community to accept seemingly unnatural, contrived, and untested projects in order to establish a functioning system that will enable systemic long-term solutions to the problems we face; keeping in mind that we are in this predicament because of unnatural, insensitive, and unintentional events, which should not be repeated, but may be necessary to achieve the preferred result.
From an economic perspective, industries that have traditionally relied on convenience or unfettered access must understand that implementing necessary fixes will require sacrifices. It will necessitate changes in ways we traditionally conducted business, and rely on innovation and least damaging alternatives in oil and gas extraction and exploration, and adapting to changing fisheries resources that will result from habitat modifications.
Unfortunately, our future will require a "line in the sand" drawn from a certain point. A point where we will stand and fight, retreat no more and do what we must to sustain ourselves. Just like the city of New Orleans, our coastal communities will require some form of protection through levees, walls, or embankments in order to survive. The line will be drawn, either by persistent degrading forces or through consensus. Coastal communities are retreating and we have lost several, and several more will not be around 20 – 40 years from now.
In Terrebonne Parish, we face a land loss rate of 10 square miles per year. We have one of the highest land loss rates in the nation and our line in the sand is the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection project. The Morganza Project will provide hurricane protection for Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, their 200,000 residents and infrastructure. The Morganza to the Gulf Project is a leaky system, which sounds odd if you consider this strictly as a flood protection system; however, leaky is the ideal way to build such a project in this environment. The obvious concern with building a project of this magnitude in coastal Louisiana is the potential impacts to wetlands, wetlands we intend to protect and restore. The Morganza Project is sensitive to these environmental concerns. We are designing this project in the most environmentally friendly way practicable. We will achieve this by constructing our levees, floodgates and environmental structures along existing hydrologic barriers, such as drainage levees, and adjacent roads minimizing impacts to wetlands and enhancing the existing hydrologic regime.
In addition, the Morganza Project will provide flood protection capable of adaptively managing the wetlands within and around the system. The lynch pin of the whole project is the lock on the Houma Navigational Canal. The HNC Lock is the key feature necessary to protect, maintain, and restore wetlands within the Terrebonne Basin. This lock is considered a critical restoration component within the Coastal 2050 Plan, Louisiana Coastal Area Study, and by the Morganza Habitat Evaluation Team. These studies agree that the Houma Navigational Canal lock can effectively assist restoration efforts of adjacent wetlands in a systemic, comprehensive approach. The Houma Navigational Canal Lock is a case study of how a flood protection project feature can serve as an adaptive management tool.
Initially, the Houma Navigational Canal lock was considered only as a Morganza Project component, designed to: protect thousands of residents and businesses from a 100-year storm event, provide safe harbor for navigation, protect the local drinking water supply, and reduce salt-water intrusion. The lock has evolved into a significant environmental structure which can substantially reduce the devastating impacts of salt water intrusion, maximize and efficiently utilize available freshwater from the Atchafalaya River to enhance, restore, and reestablish fresh and brackish water marsh within this coastal environment and oh, by the way, can protect the citizens from a category 3 storm event. The HNC lock will work collaboratively with the 12 other environmental control structures along the Morganza alignment to protect and maintain wetlands within the Terrebonne Basin.
We are anxiously waiting WRDA Authorization for remaining portions of this project that must be authorized. The citizens of Terrebonne cannot continue to wait, nor are they relying solely on federal and state financing. In fact, we are the first south Louisiana community to pass a local tax to support coastal restoration. Our citizens have assessed themselves a ¼ cents sales tax generating over $4 million per year that can only be spent on the Morganza to the Gulf Project. Some may say that this is not coastal restoration but flood protection, but I can assure you that from where I come from we do not differentiate between the two. To us this project is coastal restoration.
The Morganza to the Gulf project can serve as a model for designing a system that can protect people, infrastructure, and the environment. The Morganza Habitat Evaluation Team composed primarily of state and federal regulatory agencies, will adaptively manage this project by manipulating floodgates and environmental structures throughout the project life. This dynamic ecosystem can never be managed by a one size fits all solution.
We have a sufficient amount of information to begin putting restoration projects on the ground; the question is do we have the political will to get it done. To put into operation these large-scale projects included within the LCA study, it will require a trial and error approach, and we must understand that there will be failures. These efforts are necessary to achieve success. Unfortunately, someone’s constituency or user group will be affected which could impact one’s standing, government funding, and fear of legal prosecution. We must all have the courage and compassion to ensure that our efforts are successful. We are all too confident in the consequences of doing nothing; we cannot let the fear of uncertainty encourage inaction.
I appreciate the efforts of Senator Vitter, and our Congressional delegation for funding included within the energy bill, and I respectfully request your support and passage of WRDA, which will enable us to protect our coast and our citizens. Help us to hang on to a unique national treasure, an area rich in diversity, culture and resources.
Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Let us not have to lose this valuable resource before the nation truly appreciates its worth.