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The Louisiana Coast: Last Call — What's Next?

Talk to anyone in South Louisiana and they know that the future is clouded by sea level rise and subsidence. They also know that if the Master Plan for the Coast is not implemented on time, as scheduled, Southeast Louisiana has very little chance of staying above that sea level rise.

For the last six months The Louisiana Coast: Last Call has covered this issue, talking to the scientists involved in developing the plans, the people who will be impacted by those plans, and the administrators and policy makers charged with implementing them.

In this last installment of our series we have with us two journalists who have been covering this issue: MarkSchleifstein of Nola.com | The Times-Picayune, and Jeff Adelson of The New Orleans Advocate.

In 2007 the Legislature passed the Master Plan for the Coast, and it has since been updated to a 2012 plan. Mark, you’ve been on this beat longer than anyone: what do you think are the chances that the Master Plan can accomplish its goals on the time frame it has set?

Mark Schliefstein: When the Master Plan was originally approved in 2007 — and actually when it was updated in 2012 — there is a recognition that it is designed within the limits of the money that the state expected would actually be available. So while it sets a goal by 2035 of actually seeing an increase in the amount of land being produced — as opposed to basically reaching parity (no net loss), going above no net loss for the first time by 2035 — the reality is that everybody understood that that was limited by the amount of money that was available, and that the $50 billion that is in the plan is not enough. And, in fact, the state had said that if it had its druthers it would call for a $100 billion plan, but it did not expect to ever get that kind of money.

What do you think the chances are that it will reach its goals in the time frame that it’s set?

Mark Schleifstein: That’s the question that I didn’t answer. I think it will reach its goals. I think it will be a difficult process. But I think that one of the things that will help it along rather dramatically is the money from the BP oil spill, which we’re already seeing kicking in. The state’s going to have probably at least $5 billion and maybe as much as $10 billion that will come out of the spill — both from fines and from the natural resource damage assessment — over the next 10 to 20 years. That will give it at least a base amount of money, while at the same time it’s waiting for the federal dollars to kick in — about $200 million a year from offshore oil beginning in 2017.

Jeff, what is your idea about the chances of success for this plan?

Jeff Adelson: I think the unknown is that we’re talking about a plan that stretches over 50 years. A lot can happen politically in that time, and we’ve already seen fights in the legislature dealing with the BP money that’s supposed to go toward the Master Plan — legislative fights over whether there’s a way to override that, lawmakers trying to give themselves some leeway, to give themselves an out to redirect that money to other uses if they want. Where you end up seeing the issue is whether the political will continues to exist over this time frame; whether that money that’s supposed to go to the plan continues to do so. If I had to bet whether this is going to work exactly the way that it’s envisioned: I can’t see that happening. I think we are looking at such a catastrophic cost of failure that there’s a good possibility that it will at least be implemented to an extent to stave off that kind of catastrophe.

Mark, what is the feeling among scientists across the nation about this plan, given the recent mid-level forecast for sea level rise and then our subsidence combining for relative sea level rise? Do they think this is a waste of money, or is this a good investment?

Mark Schleifstein: Well, I think they are basically holding out to see what the next steps are and to see what the actual projects will look like. There’s no question that there are issues that still have not been answered, questions that are going to have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis as we move toward the actual construction of these projects. The first one is going to be that mid-Barataria one, and it will be a real test of whether or not they can actually design these things to capture sediment in just the right way, to make sure that it works properly and that they are not screwing up fisheries to a significant point.

If you were forced to choose, and your financial worth was at stake, would you say this will work as planned? That this will in fact “save the coast,” and in 50 years there will be more land being built than lost… and in fact we will be safe from sea level rise and hurricanes?

Mark Schleifstein: There are a lot of ifs in there, and the biggest one is sea level rise. And the question is how quickly is sea level rise going to occur, and we don’t know the answer to that. That is the great unknown, and one of the ironies here is that we are in a state that is becoming one of the major creators of carbon dioxide in the world as a result of all this construction that’s going on as a result of fracking — drilling for oil and doing directional drilling and that sort of a thing — and it’s part of our traditional schizophrenia in that we are trying desperately to restore our coast any way we possibly can, while at the same time increasing the specific chemicals that may be speeding up the process of losing the coast. So, I don’t think we have a choice.

So you would bet out of faith, because you have nothing else left, basically. You couldn’t afford to bet against it because you’d have no place to live.

Mark Schleifstein: That’s basically it. The reasons to do it lie in the post-Katrina reality, which is that not only do we need these wetlands for fisheries — which is extremely important and often is ignored in today’s real world — but much more importantly, we need these wetlands as a buffer for the new levees that we’ve put up around New Orleans, and the new levees that are going up around other communities.

So it’s not a guarantee — there are lots of questions unanswered that could mean this could fail very easily, but because you’re in a Catch-22 situation where failure really isn’t an option, you’ll just have to put your faith and support behind it.

Mark Schleifstein: At the moment I think that’s where the state is certainly directed.

Do you think people in this state — even in this area — understand what’s at risk?

Jeff Adelson: I think people are at least familiar with it. People may not know all the technical details, but I think, certainly in the New Orleans area, people are aware it’s an issue — are aware at least in general terms about the Master Plan, and to varying degrees about the problems.

Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.

The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.

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