New bill aims to prioritize federal money for coastal projects as climate risk increases
As climate change continues to produce more intense storms and rising seas, some of Louisiana’s congressional delegation wants to make protecting the nation’s shorelines a top priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Sen. Bill Cassidy and Rep. Garret Graves introduced legislation late last week aimed at prioritizing funding for federal projects that would help prevent coastal erosion and clearing barriers that have stalled ongoing projects.
The Shoreline Health Oversight, Restoration, Resilience, and Enhancement Act, or SHORRE Act, comes as Congress begins to consider projects to include in the latest iteration of the Water Resources Development Act. Updated every two years, Congress authorizes infrastructure projects and studies for the Corps to pursue, often focused on flood risk or navigation. But authorizations don’t necessarily equate to funding.
As of October 2021, the Army Corps had a $109 billion construction backlog between new infrastructure projects and rehabilitation work. Congress approves more work than the Corps can complete within its annual budget, which ranged from $4.72 billion to $7.65 billion between 2013 and 2020.
Right now, Louisiana’s coastal restoration projects, while authorized, don’t compete well for that limited pool of money, Graves said. While the state holds nearly one-third of congressionally-approved projects, the congressman said, it received just 5.5% of the Corps’ $6.7 billion budget in 2021.
Louisiana’s projects can be pricey. For example, the federal agency dragged its feet on funding the $3 billion Morganza-to-the-Gulf Hurricane Protection System around Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, despite its authorization, due to the cost which was initially estimated at $10 billion. That project just received its first $12.5 million in construction money within the 2021 budget.
“I'm not saying it needs to be exactly one-third, but it does need to be more so we can advance these projects faster,” said Graves.
He hoped the bill’s language will help tip the scale in Louisiana’s favor by elevating coastal restoration as a primary component of the Corp’s mission, offering it more weight when the agency’s districts, divisions and headquarters determine its annual work plan.
“One of the things this bill does is it explicitly puts in law that this shall be a priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “It's not going to play second or third fiddle to other types of projects.”
The bill would require the federal government to cover the full cost of a plan to restore the area surrounding the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the infamous and now-closed channel that funneled Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge to New Orleans and homes in St. Bernard. The federal government would also pay for a comprehensive study of the lower Mississippi River that was delayed after the Army Corps asked seven states along the Mississippi, including Louisiana, to negotiate their cost-share, which state officials and legislators argued would be a lengthy and time-consuming affair.
It would also offer more flexibility in how the state repays its portion of upgrades to the massive levees built around New Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes following Hurricane Katrina.
“This breaks the log jam on a lot of legal obstacles and regulatory hurdles that have delayed the restoration of many of our coastal areas,” Graves said.
Several environmental groups praised the legislation, including the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition composed of the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and Pontchartrain Conservancy.
“Provisions in the SHORRE Act will allow Louisiana to continue to advance critical storm protection and ecosystem restoration priorities for our vulnerable coastal communities and wildlife, while also better enabling others across the nation to follow suit,” said Simone Maloz, the coalition’s director.
The bill also asks the federal government to pay a higher percentage of the cost associated with nonstructural or environmental restoration projects, lowering the local cost share from the usual 35% to 20%. That local share would drop even lower to 10% or less if the project benefits “an economically-disadvantaged community,” according to the bill.
This would “help to bring those folks to the table to ensure that they would not be left out just because they couldn't afford the cost-share,” Graves said. He noted in those cases, it could be possible for the state to help share the cost with the Army Corps.
Co-sponsored by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the legislation is geared toward coastal communities across the country dealing with worsening shoreline erosion, not just Louisiana.
Though the majority of the country is bordered by water, Graves anticipates opposition from interior states due to the cost-share changes and believes amendments are inevitable. But he estimated the bill would move through his Water Resources and Environment subcommittee by May and move to a vote on the House floor by the end of the year, eventually pulling it into this year’s Water Resources and Development Act.
“There's a reason that Arkansas doesn't evacuate when hurricanes come — they have a buffer. It's called Louisiana. Our buffer has eroded,” Graves said. “And so it is critical that we get something between our communities and those huge hurricanes.”