Chairman Boxer and Members of the Committee, thank you for holding this hearing in Louisiana and giving me the opportunity to testify before you today. I would like to give special thanks to Senator Landrieu and Senator Vitter and to our entire Louisiana Congressional Delegation. They have led our state through some very difficult times since the fall of 2005.
My name is Sidney Coffee . I serve as the Chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. On behalf of the authority, I am pleased to share with you both the urgent challenges we face and the comprehensive plan we have underway to create a sustainable and safe coastal Louisiana.
It has taken thousands of years for the Mississippi River to create the seventh largest river delta on earth and we call that delta America ’s WETLAND. More than forty percent of our nation drains into this massive river system and through Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico . The river’s course, both past and present, is inextricably linked to the destiny of our people and the future of our state and nation.
Coastal Louisiana is not only ecologically significant for the world, but is a place of critical importance for the energy and economic security of the United States . It is also one of the few places in our nation where the people remain tied to the land economically, emotionally and spiritually, through a culture and heritage as unique as any you will find on the planet.
What happens on Louisiana’s coast is vital to the United States . Almost ninety percent of the nation’s offshore oil and gas comes from offshore Louisiana. A third of all the oil and gas consumed in our country is produced or transported through Louisiana, connecting to nearly half of America ’s crude oil refining capacity. South Louisiana ’s port system is first in the world in tonnage. We are second only to Alaska in annual volume of domestic seafood landings, serve as the nursery ground for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and as habitat for the second largest migratory bird flyway in North America .
This incredible, organic, coastal landscape protects these national assets, as well as the two-million people who live in coastal Louisiana, many who serve as the support for national energy production, fisheries and navigation. But we are losing this vital part of America ’s coast. Even before the hurricanes of 2005, we were losing more than 24 square miles of our coast every year. In the two days of Katrina and Rita, we lost 217 square miles.
In great measure, this ongoing land loss crisis can be attributed to the unintended consequences of Federal actions. The construction of levees along the Mississippi River for navigation and flood control cut the wetlands off from the fresh water and sediment of the river’s annual overflow. Oil and gas canals and navigation channels, dredged to support the nation’s domestic energy production and distribution, have exacerbated salt water intrusion and accelerated wetland degradation.
Unless we harness the significant resources of the Mississippi River more wisely in the future, the ecology and economy of coastal Louisiana will collapse. If we do not adopt a more integrated and comprehensive approach to ecosystem management at the Federal level, our nation will suffer as well.
Louisiana’s coast is in a constant state of emergency. It represents a unique crisis now, but is a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of our nation’s coastal areas which are all vulnerable to unavoidable, extreme storms and the effects of global climate change and sea level rise. More than forty-two percent of the nation’s population live in coastal areas and these will be challenges that many people face.
How we carry out coastal restoration and hurricane protection here in Louisiana will influence all of our rebuilding activities, from insurance and business development to personal decisions on where and how to rebuild. It should also be a model for the nation.
Louisiana has taken aggressive action. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the state legislature established the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. For the first time in our state’s history, this single state authority is integrating coastal restoration and hurricane protection and is speaking with one voice for the future of Louisiana’s coast. The CPRA’s primary mission is to develop, implement and enforce a comprehensive coastal protection and restoration master plan, which includes oversight of the levee districts of south Louisiana. We must also ensure the consistency of the federal and state water resource programs in which state participates, such as the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the work authorized by the Water Resources Development Act.
While Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast will be finalized and submitted to the Louisiana Legislature for approval in April, our partnership with the Corps will remain fundamental for our success. In the third supplemental appropriations bill, which became law (P.L. 109-148) on December 30, 2005, the Congress directed the Corps to conduct a comprehensive hurricane protection analysis and, at full federal expense, design, develop and present a full range of flood control, coastal restoration, and hurricane protection measures exclusive of normal policy considerations. The law further directed the Corps to conduct this analysis in close coordination with the State of Louisiana and its appropriate agencies.
Our state team and the Corps team are working closely together on technical issues, but the State remains concerned that the Corps will be more influenced by top-down policy rather than relying solely on sound science and engineering. This has happened before, most recently in 2004 when the Corps was directed to pare down a comprehensive coastal restoration program to fit a $2 billion price tag and a ten year implementation window. Therefore, it is essential that the Congress consider the state’s plan as well as the congressionally mandated protection plan for south Louisiana that it is expecting to receive from the Corps.
This Committee should have confidence that the State of Louisiana has worked diligently to ensure the highest level of credibility in the creation of this plan. An open planning process, involving nearly 50 stakeholder meetings and 9 public meetings to date, with 4 public meetings being held this week, has provided the public and stakeholders every opportunity to participate meaningfully in the process. Through ongoing national and international scientific review, the CPRA has strived to provide state and federal decision makers, as well as the public, with a comprehensive, credible and honest approach to coastal restoration and protection in Louisiana
The state’s master plan seeks to balance four objectives: to restore sustainability to the coastal ecosystem; to reduce risk to economic assets; to maintain a diverse array of habitats for fish and wildlife; and to sustain Louisiana’s unique heritage and culture. The Master Plan acknowledges that tough choices must be made in how we live and work in coastal Louisiana, and relies on an aggressive program of ecosystem restoration; non-structural measures such as comprehensive land-use planning, elevating homes and businesses, and fully-implementing emergency evacuation procedures; and substantially improved hurricane protection projects—levees—to sustain the way of life that has become so important to the people of Louisiana and the rest of the nation.
Our plan will also include urgent early actions that must move on a faster track: closure of Mississippi River Gulf Outlet canal; reconnecting the lower Mississippi River to its delta plain; restoring barrier islands and shorelines; modifying existing water resources projects to better achieve our objectives; and advancing projects that protect strategic assets and concentrated population areas.
We estimate the Master Plan will cost tens of billions of dollars over several decades. Last September, eighty-two percent of Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment to dedicate all federal offshore oil and gas revenues shared with the State for the purposes of coastal restoration and protection. In addition, the State dedicated a portion of its proceeds from the tobacco lawsuit settlement, which could mean a one time deposit of more than $300 million for coastal protection and restoration.
Adaptive management is a cornerstone of our approach. This will allow us build vital projects as we continue to plan and design the more ambitious components of the Master Plan – similar to the approach taken in building the interstate highway system and the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. We are also committed to building science and engineering capacity in Louisiana to guide the design and construction of projects, as well as to resolve uncertainties. Louisiana can lead the way for others as we literally re-write the textbooks in coastal engineering.
Louisiana’s effort is not comparable to traditional water resource development efforts. The ecosystem restoration and hurricane protection challenges we face are unique in circumstance, scale and urgency. We don’t have time for business as usual. To achieve our objectives, we must have a strong commitment from Congress to find more creative approaches to large scale ecosystem restoration efforts, with an expedited process for designing and building projects. It is our only chance in this race against time and against the forces of nature to save these national assets.
As a state, we are faced with tough decisions and trade-offs. Change is inevitable whether we take action or not. Everyone will be affected, so everyone has a stake in working toward a balanced outcome. We are faced with the hard decisions of prioritizing the components of the plan. We suggest that national priorities must be set as well; that a process that takes an average of twenty-five years to move a single project from planning to completion must be expedited. Areas such as coastal Louisiana that benefit and impact the nation so profoundly should be treated in a manner that considers the unique circumstances they face and the urgency they demand.
We are at an historic crossroad - one that presents us with a stark choice: make bold and difficult decisions that will preserve this state’s future and the national assets hosted here or cling to the status quo and allow coastal Louisiana to vanish. We in Louisiana have chosen to address this challenge aggressively, and we offer you our expertise in this area, our creativity and our determination to help resolve the challenges we face together. Thank you so much for your time today.
Attached to this testimony is a copy of Louisiana’s Draft Master Plan:
Integrated Ecosystem Restoration and Hurricane Protection - Louisiana 's Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. For additional copies and for access to the full suite of appendices to this plan, please visit www.louisianacoastalplanning.org.