Southwestern Louisiana is home to some of the most diverse wetlands in the United States . Within this area is the Chenier Plain zone of Louisiana, which extends from Vermilion Bay in Southwest Louisiana to Galveston Bay in Southeast Texas . Because of its topography, including extensive marshes and cheniers, the Chenier Plain enjoys a unique diversity of animal and wetland habitat. It is home to wintering waterfowl, multitudes of species of wildlife, freshwater fisheries and estuarine fisheries and is the stopover habitat for one of the largest concentrations of neotropical birds along the Gulf Coast .
This coastal region is shared by Cameron and Vermillion Parish. It is dotted by small communities where the main economic activity is fishing, shrimping, cattle farming and servicing the offshore oil industry. Marshlands extend 30 to 40 miles inland where farmers grow rice and sugar cane and ranchers raise horses and cattle.
Immediately to the north of this area, approximately 150,000 people live in or around the City of Lake Charles . The local economy is based on a major industrial complex consisting of two large oil refineries, one operating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal facility and 22 petrochemical plants. The Calcasieu Ship Channel, which travels through the wetlands of Cameron Parish, has evolved into one of the most critically important energy corridors in the country. There are two more LNG facilities planned along the ship channel – one is currently under construction. A fourth LNG facility is currently being constructed in lower Cameron Parish near the community of Johnson’s Bayou.
In March of 2006, there were five LNG facilities operating in the United States . Southwest Louisiana will eventually have four such facilities within a 20 mile radius of each another. Once operational, it is estimated that these facilities will supply 25% of our nation’s natural gas.
If time permitted I could spend my five minutes describing the difficulties we have had getting federal funding to adequately maintain the ship channel and the resulting concerns this situation raises with regard to the viability and security of the industrial complex it supports, but we are here to talk primarily about wetland restoration.
The area of Southwest Louisiana hardest hit by Hurricane Rita was Cameron Parish. It is the largest parish in the state geographically but one of the smallest in terms of population. It is home to four wildlife refuges – three federal and one state.
The damage caused by Hurricane Rita along the coast was catastrophic: the towns of Cameron, Holly Beach and Grand Chenier were practically obliterated by a 20-foot storm surge and many other coastal communities were heavily damaged by high winds and flooding. Thousands of acres of marshlands were inundated by sea water, killing livestock, ruining crops, and doing indeterminate damage to the soil and the environment.
The seafood industry was also affected. Sixty to eighty percent of the shrimp fleet was damaged, destroyed or displaced. Fishermen along the entire Louisiana coast have suffered from the one, two blow of Katrina and Rita.
Virtually the entire coast of Louisiana, including New Orleans , was affected by the storm surge of Hurricane Rita. It extended all the way to Lake Charles , 30 miles inland and just to the north of Cameron Parish. Some areas around the city were subjected to a surge of up to eight to ten feet.
Like other areas of the Gulf Coast , the hydrology of Southwestern Louisiana has been altered by man and these changes have contributed to the erosion of our coastal wetlands. Canals and deep water channels connected to Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes were dug to support oil exploration and to ship raw materials to petrochemical industries located in and adjacent to the coastal Chenier Plain.
Over the years, wetland restoration and protection measures have been implemented by large and small scale projects throughout Southwest Louisiana . The infrastructure consists of various size levees and water control structures ranging in size from small pipes to one-hundred-ten foot wide by one-thousand foot long navigation locks. Virtually all of these structures, whether owned by private entities, the state government or federal government, were damaged by Hurricane Rita.
After the devastation of Hurricane Rita, the coastal wetlands suffered through an unprecedented drought. The combination of salt water from the storm surge and lack of rain resulted in salinities in freshwater marshes which were comparable to that of the Gulf of Mexico . These excessive salinities remained in the coastal marshes for a year after Hurricane Rita’s landfall. Remnant areas still exist today. Salinity means salt. And salt destroys marshlands.
The Cameron-Creole Watershed Project is one of the largest hydrologic wetland restoration areas along the entire Gulf Coast . Before Rita, it consisted of over fifteen miles of protection levee and five major state of the art water control structures. It protected over 100,000 acres of incredibly diverse wetlands owned by private and public entities including the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge.
Unfortunately, large sections of the levee system for this project were destroyed by Hurricane Rita re-exposing the restored wetlands to the ravages of salt water intrusion.
The Cameron-Creole repair project has been divided into three phases. The estimated cost to fix this system is approximately eight (8) million dollars. FEMA has yet to qualify this project under its guidelines. Because of the urgency of these repairs, the Coastal Wetland Planning, Protection and Restoration Task Force (CWPPRA) has agreed to fund phases one and two and is proceeding with the bid process.
Other projects constructed with state and federal wetland funds were also seriously damaged by Rita and have not been repaired - the East Mud Lake Project, the East Sabine Lake Project, and the Humble Canal Project.
The Holly Beach Sand Nourishment Project also needs to be reworked. It protects Highway 82 which is the only barrier between the saline waters of the Gulf of Mexico and almost nine thousand acres of marsh along the southern boundary of Sabine National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR). Repairs to this public project are needed to restore the beaches.
All of these projects are still being evaluated as to eligibility by FEMA.
Water control structures and levees on private lands were also damaged by the hurricane. Many of the private landowners and small public entities (e.g. local drainage boards) that have applied for assistance through FEMA have been deemed ineligible.
I am not here to lay blame at the doorstep of any federal agency. Not on FEMA or on the people who work for FEMA. The problem is our dependence on well-intentioned federal regulations, which were not designed to deal with the variety, magnitude and combination of socio-economic and environmental problems created along the coast of Louisiana as a result of the hurricane season of 2005.
The residents of the City of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish depend on the coastal wetlands of Cameron Parish to support our local economy and protect us from future hurricanes. The marshes of Southwest Louisiana are resilient and can be restored. If the coastal restoration projects outlined are funded and completed in the near future this would go a long way towards helping the restoration process. If these projects are delayed much longer, the wetlands in our area will mirror the devastation currently plaguing those in the southeast part of the state both in terms of urgency and severity.
We in Southwest Louisiana recognize the importance of the Morganza to the Gulf project and the people of Terrebonne and the need for levee elevation after years of settling in the LaRose to Golden Meadow project in Lafourche Parish. These matters are important and need to be addressed, just as the damage Hurricane Rita brought to Southwest Louisiana needs to be addressed.
The culture of coastal Louisiana is unique. Its survival depends upon the restoration of our vast, diverse wetland resources and associated productivity. The people who live there are strong and resilient. They will recover and prosper if they are supported- not restricted - by rules and regulations designed to get the work done quickly, ethically and at a reasonable cost.
The good news is that this is happening in a place called America , a country established by people of great vision; governed by the people and for the people. And you are among the leaders entrusted with the legacy of that vision. On behalf of Southwest Louisiana , I am here to commit to you that we will do our part to help resolve the pressing issues I have presented to you today.
Thank you for your time. We appreciate your efforts in trying to remedy the present dilemmas facing America’s coastal wetlands of Louisiana .