Order Code RL32673
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Attempting to Restore an Ecosystem
October 25, 2004
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Attempting to Restore an Ecosystem
About 15,000 acres of wetlands in coastal Louisiana are being converted to open
water each year. This loss of wetlands is attributed to several factors, some natural
and others the result of human activity. This loss has substantial ecological,
economic, and social costs. Ecological costs center on loss of wetland habitat critical
to many plant, animal, and fish species, including ones that have commercial or
recreational value. Economic and social costs include an increased exposure to
storms with greater potential for damage to property, and smaller seafood harvests.
While these costs are concentrated in Louisiana, they can affect the regional and
national economy, as the Mississippi River bisects coastal Louisiana and a significant
amount of oil and gas enters the national distribution system through this region.
Since the wetland loss problem was initially recognized about 35 years ago,
several federal agencies, the state, and local universities have been working to better
understand why these losses are occurring, and how to slow and eventually reverse
this process. Numerous projects with restoration benefits have been initiated at
specific sites, especially since legislation increased federal funds in the early 1990s.
These projects are neutralizing conditions that lead to loss at some sites, and are
reestablishing some wetlands. These projects are expected to have many ecological,
economic, and social benefits. A July 2004 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report,
a draft ecosystem restoration study, identifies more than 150 possible remedies.
Congress continues to consider legislative options to address wetlands loss in
coastal Louisiana. Some legislative proposals would dedicate some federal revenues
from offshore oil and gas development to restoration efforts. Other proposals would
authorize specific restoration projects or activities, or further examination of the
causes and effects of loss. Among the many questions being raised are:
Is this wetland loss a local, state, or a national problem?
What options are available to respond to this problem?
How much would each option cost and what would it accomplish?
What portion of the cost should the federal government pay?
What roles should the federal government and the state play in restoration?
Responding to widespread wetland losses in coastal Louisiana has been
characterized by some as a large-scale restoration of an ecosystem. Proponents of
taking action equate proposed responses to restoration efforts in other places, such
as the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay, that have garnered widespread public
attention, congressional support, and federal funds. Some characteristics support this
comparison, including the large area that has been affected, the complex biological
and physical processes, the central role of water, and potential benefits of restoration
efforts for diverse biological resources. The overall restoration effort has not been
opposed, but there are disagreements over specific subjects, such as project priorities
and how costs should be allocated between the state and the federal government.
Congress may address these disagreements through legislative actions. This report
will be updated as events warrant.
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The Problems in Coastal Louisiana . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Landscape . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Rapid Change . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Land Losses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
The Costs of Wetlands Loss . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Prior Responses to Wetland Losses in Louisiana . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Act 6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
National Estuary Program . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Breaux Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Prototype Diversions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Coast 2050 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
The Corps’ Current Proposal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Dividing Up the Coast . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
The Proposed Plan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
The National Academy of Sciences Study . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Defining Success . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Ecosystem Restoration: A Context for Considering the
Coastal Louisiana Effort . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Congressional Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Concluding Observations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
List of Figures
Figure 1. Louisiana Coastal Area Study Area and Subregion Boundaries . . . . . 14
Figure 2. Major Cultural and Physical Features in Southern Louisiana . . . . . . . 14
Figure 3. Restoration Features in the Tentatively Selected Plan . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Figure 4. Wetland (or Ecosystem) Trends Over Time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Attempting to Restore an Ecosystem
About 15,000 acres of wetlands in coastal Louisiana are being lost each year as
they are converted to open water. Some of the factors identified as causing this
conversion, such as dredging channels for oil and gas pipelines, are a result of human
activities, while others, such as land subsidence, are a result of either natural causes
or a mix of natural and human causes. Federal public works projects for flood
control and navigation have contributed to these losses, which have major ecological,
economic, and social costs. While these costs are concentrated in Louisiana, they can
affect the regional and national economy, as coastal Louisiana is bisected by the
Mississippi River and is the site of significant commercial and recreational seafood
harvests, and a substantial amount of oil and gas enters the national distribution
system through this region.
Halting or reversing these trends will take time and be expensive. Since the
wetland loss problem was initially recognized about 35 years ago, several federal
agencies, the state, and local universities have been working to better understand why
these losses are occurring, and how to effectively slow and eventually reverse this
process. Numerous projects with site-specific restoration benefits have been
initiated, especially since legislation increased federal funds in the early 1990s.
These projects are neutralizing conditions that lead to loss at some sites, and are
reestablishing some wetlands. Federal agencies and the state have started to consider
these projects within the context of a more systematic approach to wetland
restoration throughout the region in the past several years.
Congress continues to consider legislative options to address wetlands loss in
coastal Louisiana. In these deliberations, it will be able to draw from a July 2004
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) study that looks at the region in a more
systematic fashion and identifies possible remedies. Some legislative proposals
would authorize specific restoration projects or activities, or further examination of
the causes and effects of loss. Other proposals would dedicate some federal revenues
from offshore oil and gas development to restoration efforts. Among the many
questions Congress may examine are:
Is this wetland loss a local, state, or a national problem?
What options are available to respond to this problem?
How much would each option cost and what would it accomplish?
What portion of the cost should the federal government pay?
What roles should the federal government and the state play in restoration?
This report reviews physical changes in coastal Louisiana, emphasizing the rate
of wetlands losses, and the problems that result from these losses. It reviews past
efforts to understand and respond to these physical changes. The report then reviews
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers current draft restoration plan. It discusses what
success might mean in the context of coastal Louisiana and compares what is
proposed to some other efforts to restore large ecosystems. It concludes by reviewing
relevant legislation considered by the 108th Congress.
The Problems in Coastal Louisiana
Coastal Louisiana is a fragile landscape where wetlands are easily altered by
human actions or changes in physical processes. It is also a dynamic landscape,
where large changes can occur rapidly. In recent decades, the most pronounced
change has been that this area is losing coastal wetlands at a rapid but slowing rate.
Wetlands have changed to open water. Open water is a far less productive ecosystem,
providing less habitat for many plant and animal species and producing less biomass,
including species of commercial or recreational importance, than wetlands. Wetlands
also buffer inland areas and development from ocean storms, while open water
increases exposure to these storms. Exposure puts personal property and community
infrastructure, as well as pipelines and other energy infrastructure that is concentrated
in this area, at greater risk. The parties that will participate in the restoration effort
agree that the overall goal will be to stabilize and then expand the wetland acreage.
This goal can be accomplished by some combination of slowing the rate of loss at
some sites and reestablishing wetlands at other sites. A corollary to this goal may be
that the greatest program benefits will result in the largest net increase in wetlands.
Rates of loss of wetlands have been tracked by scientists for more than 25 years.
They have used information about the causes, rates, and patterns of loss to make
projections through 2050. Past and projected changes are shown in a map produced
by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). These changes include both land loss and
gain.1 This map shows three important characteristics of change in wetland acres.
It shows that past and future land loss is not occurring uniformly across the breadth
of coastal Louisiana, but rather is concentrated near the mouth of the Mississippi
River. It also shows that the total loss is the sum of losses occurring at many sites
that are often small and largely disconnected from each other, but that in total, add
up to a significant number of acres and significant damage to the ecosystem. It also
shows that there are significant gains in a few locations.
The Landscape. The landscape of coastal Louisiana, which is has four major
elements; wetlands, barriers and beaches, uplands, and open waters.2 All these
landscape elements are affected not only by the ocean, but also by the Mississippi
This map can be found at [http://www.coast2050.gov/pptpres.htm], visited on September
23, 2004. The first listed presentation at this site includes a number of maps. The final map
of the presentation is the entire coast of the state and shows the four variables (land loss
1932-2000; predicted land loss 2000-2050; land gain 1932-2000; and predicted land gain
2000-2050) in different colors. This color map is not included in this report because the
information consists of many small areas that would not show up on a page-sized map, and
would not be clearly differentiated in a black-and-white format.
Coastal Louisiana is generally the area that the state has defined to be in its coastal zone,
and encompasses almost 30% of the state.
River, which contributes sediment and fresh water (and sometimes flood waters) into
many parts of coastal Louisiana. The mouth of the river, where it builds up a delta
by depositing sediment from the entire watershed, has migrated several times to
different locations along coastal Louisiana in recent centuries, and would likely do
so again if not for the dike, levee, and flood control projects built by the Corps that
combine to contain it within the current channel.3
Wetlands have been the dominant feature in coastal Louisiana. The USGS and
Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources estimate that Louisiana has about 3.7
million acres of coastal wetlands,4 while the Corps has calculated that wetlands
occupy 3.5 million acres, or 42.3% of the restoration project study area. Coastal
wetlands nearest the ocean exist in waters with high salinity. Salinity levels drop as
one moves away from the ocean or closer to a source of freshwater, such as a
watershed drainage. Scientists generally subdivide Louisiana’s coastal wetlands into
subgroups. Each supports habitat for different mixes of plant and animal species.
Every type can be highly productive. In the July 2004 Corps study, six subgroups
were identified: 898,000 acres of wetland forest/swamp; 107,700 acres of wetland
scrub; 860,000 acres of freshwater marsh; 658,900 acres of intermediate marsh;
547,600 acres of brackish marsh; and 423,400 acres of saline marsh.5
The narrow string of coastal barriers and beaches are an insignificant amount
of the total area in coastal Louisiana, certainly less than 1%, but they provide a
critical buffer for the wetlands. They protect the wetlands and upland areas from the
full force of ocean waves and flood waters, ocean salinity, and wind. Rather than
one continuous barrier beach system along the entire coast of Louisiana, there are
several distinct barrier systems. These barriers also provide important habitat.
Barrier islands and beaches are composed of unconsolidated sediments and adjust
rapidly in response to ocean forces. Currently, several portions are eroding rapidly,
“experiencing some of the highest land loss rates in the Nation.”6
Within the coastal wetlands and landward of the wetlands are more-elevated
uplands, characterized by different vegetation.7 These uplands are the sites of most
settlement and commercial enterprise in coastal Louisiana. These more-elevated
areas come in several different forms, based on the geologic processes by which they
were created. Uplands total only 242,300 acres, or 2.9% of the study area.
Open water is rapidly increasing in the study area, as the 15,000 acres of
wetlands being lost each year transition to this condition. Open water now
Unless otherwise noted, all the data used to describe this landscape come from the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study (Draft),
July, 2004. (Hereafter referred to as Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study.)
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, National Wetlands Research
Center, National and Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Data, September 9, 2003.
Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, p. MR-39.
Ibid, p. MR-41.
Uplands are but slight variations in elevation in coastal Louisiana, and only a few feet
higher than the surrounding land in most cases.
encompasses 4.5 million acres, or 54.7% of the study area. Much of this expansion
is in ponds that were formerly coastal fresh water or intermediate marshes. Erosion
that causes shorelines of existing ponds to expand has ranged up to a distance of
1,000 feet, according to the Corps.
Rapid Change. Coastal Louisiana is extremely dynamic from a geological
standpoint, as each of the major landscape elements can change rapidly. Change can
be rapid because the forces that affect the landscape strike frequently (in geologic
time) and are very powerful, and because this landscape is especially vulnerable to
these forces of change. The two main forces are hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico
and flood waters draining out of the Mississippi River watershed. These forces can
breach the coastal barrier and beach systems, inundate large areas of low-lying land,
and destroy large wetland areas.
These natural processes and the physical changes they cause are frequently in
conflict with human uses and values, which depend, in part, on a stable and
unchanging coastal environment. Before the major navigation and flood control
projects were built along the river, land building processes were dominant where it
emptied into the Gulf and deposited sediments originating from throughout the
drainage basin, while shoreline receding processes were prevalent in areas where the
inflow of sediment was less than was needed to sustain the coastal land forms.8
These major projects have fostered commercial development by reducing flooding
and maintaining navigation. However, they also have limited the amount of sediment
reaching the mouth of the river and accelerated the velocity of flow, contributing to
coastal instability by reducing the amount of sediment deposited in coastal Louisiana
and pushing a larger portion of that sediment beyond the delta and offshore. Part of
the challenge of the restoration, then, is to create (or maintain) a coastal ecosystem
that functions as a relatively stable physical environment in a dynamic setting.
Coastal barrier and beach systems are very responsive to the dynamic forces
affecting coastal Louisiana. They depend on the river as a source of material to build
and stabilize the coastline. These systems, which include the entire beach system
from dunes on the land side to sand bars offshore, are already unstable, and any rise
in sea level or additional subsidence will exacerbate these changes, especially in an
extremely flat area like coastal Louisiana. Changes can show up very quickly in the
condition of coastal barriers and beaches. The deterioration or loss of these buffers
exposes coastal wetlands to ocean forces, such as waves, and to physical conditions,
especially higher salinity levels, that hasten their demise.
Land Losses. Most of the land that is being lost to open water is coastal
wetlands. Louisiana has 30% of all the coastal marsh, one category of coastal
wetland, in the coterminous 48 states, but currently accounts for 90% of all coastal
marsh losses, according to the USGS. USGS estimates that the state has lost about
As the mouth of the river (and the delta that forms at the mouth) has migrated several
times in the past 7,000 years, many locations along the central portion of the state’s coast
have undergone periods of both widespread and rapid growth, followed by extensive erosion
and subsidence. Geologists identify seven distinct deltas, and, within the current one, four
distinct sediment complexes that have formed since 1839.
1.22 million acres of coastal wetland in the past 70 years, which is roughly equivalent
to the area of Delaware. Additional studies show that the rate of loss has been
slowing, averaging more than 28,000 acres annually between 1956 and 1978, about
22,000 acres between 1978 and 1990, and about 15,000 acres between 1990 and
2000. A recent USGS projection of future losses forecasts that an additional 448,000
acres could be lost by 2050 if no further actions are taken to halt or reverse current
processes.9 (If there were no further changes to current programs, these losses would
be partially offset by gains that are estimated to total about 103,000 acres from
restoration projects that are already underway and from natural processes in some
locations.) One partial explanation for why the amount of loss is slowing is that
much less remains to be lost than was there 70 years ago, although the average annual
decline as a portion of the remaining wetlands has been falling as well.
The major causes of these losses are known in composite. Some of these are
natural, others are manmade, and the remainder are natural causes amplified by
human activity. These frequently articulated causes include:
! The land (a very thick layer of unconsolidated sediment deposited by the
Mississippi River) is subsiding;
! Sea level is rising;
! Oil and gas deposits are being withdrawn, which can cause additional
! Dams and diversions throughout the Mississippi River watershed have greatly
reduced the amount of sediment that reaches coastal Louisiana (where it
could have replenished and built up the wetlands);
! Levees along the river to provide flood protection limit periodic flooding into
the marshes that had brought additional sediment and nutrients; and
! Canals and channels that provide navigation through the wetlands for oil and
gas industries and others (in total, they traverse hundreds of miles) cause
disruptions to the movement of water and nutrients, and facilitate salt water
intrusion. Boat traffic using them generates additional shoreline erosion.10
It is difficult to allocate wetland loss among these causes. One reason for this
challenge is that relationships among these factors vary from location to location.
For example, the western coastal area of the state is different geologically than the
central and eastern areas where the past and present deltas are located. A second
reason is the considerable uncertainty as to how some of these factors relate to each
other. For example, canals that traverse coastal Louisiana north-south create direct
pathways that allow salt water to penetrate into the fresh and brackish water marshes,
while east-west canals disrupt the hydrology by creating barriers to flows, but few of
All loss estimates were calculated by the USGS’s National Wetlands Research Center,
which has published a number of reports describing past and predicted loss rates. The
Center has produced a color map of past (1932-2000) and predicted (2000-2050) land losses
and gains. Information about this map and a web address are in footnote 1.
One channel in particular, the 76 mile Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) constructed
in the 1960s to shorten the trip between New Orleans and the Gulf, is estimated to have
caused the loss of almost 20,000 acres of wetlands. Modifying or even closing it will likely
be an important component of any restoration plan and is in the July 2004 draft proposal.
these flow in a single direction and either due north-south or east-west. A third
reason is that major changes are often dictated by periodic and unpredictable big
events such as landfalls by major hurricanes or the infrequent changes in the location
of the mouth of the Mississippi River. For instance, many hydrologists believe that
the river is trying to change course again, so that the main stem would empty into the
Atchafalaya Basin to the west of the current mouth, bypassing both New Orleans and
the current delta to the south of the city.
All these natural processes and human modifications work in different
combinations at different locations with a result that all of coastal Louisiana is not
becoming open water at an equal pace. The few places where sediment is accreting
and wetlands are slowly building are the exceptions, and encompass only a small
fraction when compared to the sites that are losing land. In some areas, land loss has
already been extensive and marshes and wetlands are already largely converted.
According to the Corps’ analysis, the areas with the greatest overall land loss are
around the mouth of the Mississippi River, where most of the development that has
modified the natural environment is concentrated, as are the physical processes
associated with the draining river.
Scientists have a greatly improved understanding of the physical processes by
which wetlands are converted into open water since they started studying them more
than three decades ago. They understand how these causes combine to change the
landscape of coastal wetlands in this area. They have determined, for example, that
the effect of the loss varies. The narrow bands where the wetlands and the water
environment intersect, called edge habitat, can be highly productive. Edge habitat
temporarily increases as a marsh breaks apart, so populations that depend on this
habitat temporarily increase as well. But as a fragmented marsh continues to be
converted into open water, the amount of edge habitat available decreases and the
populations that depend on that marsh and on the edge habitat eventually collapse.
The Costs of Wetlands Loss.11 The losses of wetlands have costs both to
the people and economic activity that depend directly on this area, and to broader
ecosystems and enterprise more generally. These losses have already harmed some
economic activities centered in this area, including fisheries, oil and gas industries,
and facilities associated with ports and navigation more generally, and those effects
are likely to grow unless industry makes additional investments to protect their
facilities. Economic activity is substantial in this area; one measure of this is that
investment in coastal Louisiana is estimated to total $100 billion.12 Oil and gas
facilities include many production, storage, processing, and distribution facilities,
and the area is bisected by numerous pipelines. Most of the nearly 3,000 miles of
channels in the coastal wetlands, some for deep draft vessels and others for shallow
Unless otherwise noted, data in this subsection come from a 2003 report to Congress on
the effectiveness of Breaux Act projects titled Breaking New Ground in Louisiana, prepared
by the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, or from other
sources that are summarized in this report.
Background briefing paper prepared by committee staff for the House Transportation
Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment July 15, 2004, hearing
on the Corps’ proposals.
draft, are used by the oil and gas industry. More than 80% of the country’s offshore
oil and gas is produced off this coast, and 25% of the foreign and domestic oil used
in this country comes ashore through coastal Louisiana.13 In addition, part of the
Strategic Petroleum Reserve is located in coastal Louisiana.
From an ecological perspective, these coastal wetlands are critical not only to
full-time resident species, but also to much larger ecosystems. These wetlands
provide wintering habitat for millions of waterfowl and other migratory species who
use the Mississippi flyway; at least 20% of waterfowl in the country spend winters
in this area. Also, these wetlands are the home to 11 endangered species and 13
threatened species recognized by the federal government. It should be no surprise,
given the many ecological values to be found in this region, that it is the site of
multiple federal designations, including 20 national wildlife refuges and one unit in
the national park system, a national historic park and preserve. These federal lands
total more than 192,000 acres. The loss of wetlands is reducing or compromising the
natural values for which many of these sites were initially designated.
Coastal wetlands also support a large fishery by providing habitat and food. The
commercial fishery is valued at $343 million in landings. It is estimated that more
than 25% of the seafood consumed in the country comes through Louisiana, and that
more than 75% of the species (commercial and recreational) in the northern Gulf of
Mexico spend a portion of their lifecycles in the wetlands of Louisiana. Another
study estimates that commercial and recreational fisheries create more than 40,000
jobs and contribute more than $3.5 billion to the state’s economy. Estimates of the
annual economic impact of recreational fishing to the state range between $700
million and almost $1 billion.
Other benefits that are being reduced include water quality and storm protection;
for example, a 1989 study cited in Breaking New Ground in Louisiana estimated that
the coast’s 2.5 million acres of wetlands have annual storm protection values
between $520 million and $2.2 billion. If large wetland areas are lost, the existing
levee system will be more exposed to the erosive forces of storms. To reduce the risk
created by these wetland losses, some levees may need to be “fortified” by adding
stone or concrete to their surface to deflect these forces.
Advocates of restoration have developed scenarios of potential financial impacts
should deterioration continue and a hurricane strike.14 If pipelines or storage
facilities are damaged, oil production could decline 625,000 barrels a day; if this
were to last from three to five weeks, the cost to consumers because of higher prices
for gasoline alone would be $1.7 to $2.9 billion. A second set of costs would result
if the Mississippi River channel is closed to transportation because of storm damage
or siltation. A one-week closure would cost $50 million, while a two-week closure
would cost an estimated $200 million. A third set of costs could be incurred by
commercial fisheries. Finally, in a worst-case situation with the loss of most current
wetlands in the coastal area, 50% of the neotropical migratory bird population could
Breaking New Ground in Louisiana, p.8.
All the forecasts of possible impacts come from the discussion of the future without the
project in the Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, pp. MR52-MR 59.
be lost, with an economic loss to the state of $84 million, and to the overall
Mississippi and Central Flyways of $2.45 billion per year.
Proponents of federal
Comparing Large-Scale Restorations:
assistance see the losses that
Coastal Louisiana and South Florida
have already occurred and the
much larger losses that might
Proponents of legislation to fund and support
occur as national problems,
restoration in coastal Louisiana point to prior
deserving a strong response that
congressional action for South Florida. In 2000,
Congress passed legislation providing $7.8 billion for
would presumably include
the restoration of South Florida as part of the Water
considerable federal funding
Resources Development Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-541).
and federal expertise. They may
South Florida and coastal Louisiana have many
see the South Florida ecosystem
similarities; the project areas are of similar size, have
similar total populations, similar proportions of public
restoration as a model of federal
lands, and almost identical amounts of “critical”
and state cooperation, where
wetlands. Among the differences are that wetland
they share the costs and
conversion rates have been higher in Louisiana, where
responsibilities (see box). Both
more coastal wetlands are being lost. In addition,
are productive ecosystems, and
Florida’s losses, which are mostly deterioration rather
than conversion, are being caused by agricultural
activities, urban development, and modification to the
values reflected in large swaths
hydrologic system. Also, Louisiana is portrayed as a
of federally protected areas in
“working coast,” while South Florida is largely a
units of the National Wildlife
protected landscape centered on the Everglades.
Current protection programs have important
coastal Louisiana has not been
Florida projects require a 50% nonfederal
viewed as a natural treasure and
cost share while Louisiana projects currently require
does not contain any federal
15%. Total Florida spending is authorized at $11 billion
designations that draw as much
while total Louisiana funding is authorized at $600
million. Under authorized efforts, Florida will restore or
attention as the Everglades
preserve 217,000 acres of wetlands, while Louisiana will
restore or preserve about 142,000 wetland acres.
appears to be viewed more as a
Greater political success in “selling” the Florida program
working landscape that has a
is attributed to (1) a meaningful process for gathering
number of unusual attributes.
input and resolving disputes among stakeholders, and (2)
building a shared commitment to address a central issue,
This perspective about coastal
providing municipal water supply benefits.
Louisiana, however, has created
a challenge for proponents of
Source: R. H. Caffey and M. Schexnayder, Coastal
the restoration to demonstrate
Louisiana and South Florida: A Comparative Wetland
that the changes occurring in
Inventory. National Sea Grant Library (2003), 8 pp.
coastal Louisiana are or will
become a national problem in
need of significant federal involvement and financial assistance, rather than one that
is primarily regional or local.
Prior Responses to Wetland Losses in Louisiana
Managing the dynamic natural processes in south Louisiana has been a collage
of piecemeal efforts. These efforts have involved individual projects or activities at
specific sites to address identified problems or needs with little attention to
implications for the greater landscape. Most projects have centered on large-scale
construction to maintain or improve navigation, move water in more desired patterns,
or protect development from floods and ocean storms. Other activities have
Interest has been growing in looking at projects from a broader perspective, and
the Corps has developed a set of proposals that continue that evolution to look at
coastal Louisiana more as a system. Nonetheless, the projects that were considered
for this set of proposals, and the smaller subset that have been put forth for funding,
are presented by the Corps as being largely independent of each other. Earlier
responses to resource deterioration in this part of Louisiana are reviewed in this
section with emphasis on federal initiatives; the set of proposals that have been
proposed by the Corps and are currently being reviewed by the public are discussed
in the next section.
Federal and state efforts to address the coastal wetlands loss and related coastal
management issues can be traced back to the early 1970s, when the rate, extent, and
distribution of the coastal wetland loss problem was initially documented and
publicized. Subsequent research was conducted to better document the sites and
rates of loss, and to learn more about the causes. Later in the 1970s, the state
developed a coastal management plan that was federally approved in 1978, making
the state eligible for modest federal grants. This plan further addressed the wetland
loss issue in the context of state and local planning and resource management.
Act 6. Louisiana enacted a wetland law known as Act 6 in 1989.15 More
correctly referred to as the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation, Restoration,
and Management Act, Act 6 made the state’s Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) the lead agency to develop and implement coastal restoration projects. It
requires the DNR to prepare and update annually a plan to guide spending on
restoration projects. This plan was completed in 1994. In its capacity as lead agency,
it received a one-time federal allocation of $26.4 million from the Coastal Impact
Assistance Fund in 2001 to fund a variety of state and local activities.16 Act 6 also
created a state Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Fund, which receives a
portion of revenues from severance taxes on mineral production. This fund is used
to finance approximately $25 million in coastal restoration projects and activities.
National Estuary Program. The National Estuary Program (NEP),
established in section 320 of Clean Water Act amendments enacted in 1987 (P.L.
100-4), provides federal funds and coordination for a portion of the Louisiana coast.
Governors nominate sites, and EPA has accepted 28 into this program. After sites are
accepted, EPA awards grants to develop comprehensive management plans to restore
and protect estuaries that are threatened by pollution, development, or overuse.
Congress designated the Barateria Terrebonne site for priority consideration in
1988, and it was nominated in 1989 and admitted in 1990. It is bounded by the
Mississippi River and Atchafalaya River, and is bisected by Bayou Lafourche. The
Louisiana R.S. 49: 213-214.
This fund was authorized in Section 903 of the FY2001 Commerce, Justice, State, the
Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-553), and funded only that
program for this site is operated under a comprehensive management plan adopted
in the early 1990s. One goal of this plan is to preserve and restore wetlands and
barrier islands. A 1993 conference identified more than 250 actions that might be
initiated to achieve the program goals, many of which are being implemented.
Breaux Act. The federal government has been involved in major projects in
south Louisiana for more than a century, mostly centered on navigation
improvements or flood control. Federal involvement in the large-scale projects to
restore coastal wetlands started with funding provided by the Breaux Act (P.L. 101646, Title III), enacted in 1990. This act, formally called the Coastal Wetlands
Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act, created a task force that consists of
representatives from the state of Louisiana and five federal entities: the Corps, EPA,
and the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce. This task force
adopted a comprehensive wetland restoration plan in 1993 to guide its efforts. It
adopts a priority project list each year, and projects are selected on their merits.
However, the plan does not include any overall strategy to identify project priorities.
Each year, this task force allocates approximately $50 million to implement the
priority projects. A summary compiled by Corps staff in August 2003 showed that
the Corps alone had spent more than $208 million under the Breaux Act, with
spending trending upward from year to year. The Corps has stated that it is spending
about $50 million annually to construct protection and restoration projects and $5
million annually for project planning.17
Since 1990, 142 projects have been authorized, and Breaux Act funds have been
used to initiate more than 120 of them. According to the draft Corps study, 61
projects have been completed. (The task force stated that 68 had been completed by
November 2003.18) Most of the projects and about three-quarters of the spending
have been in the central coastal area. These projects use four coastal restoration and
protection techniques: planting vegetation, dedicated dredging, protecting shorelines,
and diverting flowing waters. A benefit attributed to this program is that predictable
funding from year to year has allowed the Corps and others to experiment with
innovative restoration techniques, and to learn more about the positive and negative
attributes of alternative methods. All projects are maintained and monitored for 20
years. These projects will create, restore, or protect approximately 71,000 acres in
total (equal to between four and five years of losses at the current rate), and when all
the 142 authorized projects are completed, the wetland benefits are projected to
double to more than 140,000 acres.
Prototype Diversions. Two ongoing Corps projects to create marshes, the
Caernarvon Diversion and the Davis Pond Diversion, are pointed to as possible
prototypes for future restoration efforts. Construction at the Caernarvon Diversion,
near the east bank of the Mississippi River and just below New Orleans, was
completed in 1991, while the Davis Pond Diversion, along the west bank of the river
and above New Orleans, was completed in 2002. After construction to permit and
control the diversions was completed, fresh water (bearing sediment) is periodically
Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, p. MR-15.
Breaking New Ground in Louisiana, cited above.
redirected from the river to improve wetland habitat and reduce salinity levels to
create more brackish conditions. At Caernarvon, which has been operating far
longer, marsh losses have been reversed, and habitat improvements center on higher
fisheries production, especially of oysters, and expanded waterfowl use. Davis Pond
has been operating for a much shorter time, with little information yet on what is
being accomplished. Over the next 50 years, the Corps estimates that the Caernarvon
Diversion will add 16,000 acres of wetlands and the Davis Pond Diversion will add
almost 34,000 acres of wetlands.19 (These gains will be equal to a little more than
three years of losses at current rates.)
Coast 2050. In the next major federal-state initiative, an interagency group
representing federal, state, and local interests and led by the Corps completed a longrange plan called Coast 2050 — Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana, often
referred to as Coast 2050, in 1998. This study looked at the land loss problem from
a broader ecosystem perspective than earlier studies. It compiled available
information about the problems and provided a comprehensive overview of all
planning efforts to date. It subdivided coastal Louisiana into four subregions, based
on hydrologic boundaries, a planning organization that has been retained with limited
modified boundaries in the current Corps proposal (and is presented below with that
proposal). For each subregion, general strategies and projects that could be
implemented to attain those strategies were identified for three time periods: 1-5
years, 6-15 years, and 16-50 years.
The general strategic goals for each subregion respond to three goals related to
desired natural processes. These goals, stated in scientific terms, were to (1) build
up sediments on which wetlands can reestablish themselves; (2) maintain the
transition between fresh and higher ocean salinity levels to achieve diversity; and (3)
allow the hydrology of the area to operate as a system. The study report proposed 77
restoration strategies, many of them construction projects, to be implemented over
the next 50 years. It estimated that implementing these strategies would cost a total
of about $14 billion and protect or restore almost 450,000 acres of wetlands. It
concluded that if current efforts were to continue without expanding it, the “current
program would address only 22% of the land loss problems.”20
The Corps’ Current Proposal
Shortly after the Coast 2050 plan was completed, it became increasingly
apparent to those federal agencies and state interests most directly involved in this
effort that additional development of a systemwide restoration program as the basis
for authorizing additional federal spending was needed. The Corps and the state
initiated development of a comprehensive ecosystem restoration study in March
2000. The product of this effort, the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) Ecosystem
Restoration Study issued by the Corps, is frequently referred to as the “near-term
study” because it focused on actions that could be initiated over the next 10 years.
Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, pp. MR 43-44.
Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, Coast 2050:
Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana, p. 144.
An initial version of the
draft was completed in October
2003, but was never officially
released for general review. It
was widely anticipated that the
Corps would have
recommended an option that
included numerous projects
ranging from small restorations
to major diversions. Several
alternatives reportedly ranged
between $4.3 billion and $14.7
billion, with the likely preferred
option costing about $8 billion.
It was widely reported in the
press that the Administration,
represented by the Office of
Management and Budget
(OMB), reviewed this draft and
the cost estimates, then directed
the Corps to reduce the
estimated cost of this program.
Types of Restoration Projects
Restoration projects in a coastal wetland
environment can take numerous forms, and they are
referred to in many different ways. Types of projects
include the following:
Freshwater Diversions channel water (and sediments
and nutrients) into wetlands to slow saltwater
intrusion and promote marsh expansion.
Outfall Management regulates freshwater diversion
flows to ensure that water reaches the target areas
Sediment Diversions are created by opening a levee so
that water and sediment flow into nearby wetlands,
replicating natural processes for building land.
Dredged Material / Marsh Creation places sediment at
specified elevations in a deteriorating wetland to
Shoreline Protection includes all techniques used to
diffuse wave energy at the beach or stabilize the
Sediment and Nutrient Trapping includes techniques,
usually used in dunes behind beaches, to
accumulate sediment or slow water flow rates.
Hydrologic Restoration restores natural drainage
patterns by altering past modifications, including
levees, navigation channels, and dredged canals.
Marsh Management reestablishes vegetation and habitat
by controlling water elevations and salinity in
contained marsh areas.
Barrier Island Restoration stabilizes and better protects
these islands through diverse methods such as
planting vegetation and constructing breakwaters.
Vegetation Planting establishes flood and salt-tolerant
marsh plants to stabilize soils.
The Corps released for
public review its revised draft
study, which responded to
OMB’s concerns, in July 2004.
The projects it identified were
combined in 15 different ways,
then compared for meeting four
“critical needs criteria:” (1)
Source: Adopted from Table 2 in Breaking New Ground
preventing future land loss; (2)
in Louisiana, p. 20.
restoring deltaic process; (3)
restoring geomorphic structure
(creating marshes and protecting the shoreline are examples provided); and (4)
protecting vital community and socioeconomic resources. The Corps concluded that
only one of these 15 combinations would meet all four criteria, and it was therefore
identified as the preferred option. It estimated that implementing this option would
cost slightly less than $2 billion.
The Corps anticipates that it will complete a final version of this plan soon. The
final plan, with the selected option, is intended to be the basis for subsequent
congressional action to authorize appropriations, and where necessary, specific
projects. One vehicle for such action might be the next iteration of a Water
Resources Development Act (WRDA). A WRDA passed the House in 2003 (H.R.
2557); a separate WRDA bill was reported by the Senate Environment and Public
Works Committee in August 2004 (S. 2773), but further action appears unlikely
during the lame-duck session following the elections. An alternative vehicle in the
Senate might be FY2005 appropriations legislation to fund the activities of the
involved agencies. A more detailed description of considerations by the 108th
Congress is presented below.
Dividing Up the Coast. The Corps analysis of the proposed projects is
subdivided among four regions, similar to the earlier Coast 2050 report. The four
regions, termed subprovinces by the Corps, are outlined in Figure 1 on the top of the
next page.21 Figure 2 on the bottom shows major roads, larger communities, and
physical features in coastal Louisiana. The Corps considered each subprovince
independent of the others, so there is no analysis of how projects in one subprovince
might affect the natural resources or physical processes in the adjoining
subprovinces. The physical landscapes in subprovinces 1 through 3 are similar to
each other in many ways, as they encompass present or past Mississippi River deltas,
and are called the Deltaic Plain. Subprovince 4 is different, with more upland and
freshwater wetland acreage and less open water, and is called the Chenier Plain.22
The subprovinces are as follows:
! Subprovince 1 is bounded by the Pearl River along the Mississippi state
boundary to the east and the Mississippi River channel along most of the west.
It includes the city of New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain, and Breton Sound.
! Subprovince 2 is bounded by the Mississippi River along most of the east and
Bayou Lafourche along most of the west. It is protected from the Gulf by a
string of coastal barriers. Larger communities include Gretna (adjacent to
New Orleans), Grand Isle, and Port Fourchon (at the mouth of Bayou
! Subprovince 3 is bounded on the east by Bayou Lafourche and on the west
by Freshwater Bayou. The Atchafalaya River drains through the center of this
subprovince near Morgan City. The other large community is Houma.
! Subprovince 4 lies between Freshwater Bayou and the Sabine River along the
Texas state line. It is being called the Chenier Plain because the cheniers
provide much more pronounced boundaries between coastal salt marshes on
the ocean side and freshwater marshes and lakes inland. Cameron is a large
town in this subprovince.
Each subprovince has distinct physical characteristics and a different array of
problems to be addressed. Subprovince 1 has already suffered extensive land loss.
The rate of loss is expected to decrease in the future as the remaining area dwindles
and there will be much less to lose. Subprovince 2 is currently losing the greatest
number of acres, and the rate is projected to remain high. Subprovince 3 is accreting
in portions of the Atchafalaya basin, and is losing less land than subprovince 2. In
Subprovince 4, erosion continues along the edges of marshes and lakes, but overall
land loss is projected to be far slower here than in the other three subprovinces.
The upland boundary of the study area generally follows the line drawn by the state to
delineate its coastal zone, which is one of the requirements for participating in the federal
Coastal Zone Management Program.
A chenier is an elevated ridge running parallel to the shoreline vegetated with live oaks
and other deciduous plants and trees.
Figure 1. Louisiana Coastal Area Study Area
and Subregion Boundaries
Figure 2. Major Cultural and Physical Features in Southern Louisiana
Source: Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, p. MR-6.
The Proposed Plan. The proposals in this draft, shown in Figure 3, would
cost an estimated total of $1.96 billion to implement over the next 10 years. It is
thought that authorizing legislation would require the federal government to pay 65%
of the total, based on legislation authorizing other large-scale restoration projects,
although some in the state believe that the federal share should be greater since past
federal navigation and flood control projects have been so central to the wetland
losses. The state has several possible sources to fund its share.
Elements of the draft plan for which the Corps would seek authorization are:23
! Implementing five “features”: (1) the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ecological
restoration, which includes constructing breakwaters along several lengths of
shoreline; (2) Hope Canal small diversion to place between 1,000 and 2,000
cubic feet of water per second into the Maurepas Swamp; (3) barrier island
restoration along 14.5 miles of shoreline in the Barataria Basin; (4) small
Bayou Lafourche reintroduction of up to 1,000 cubic feet of water per second:
and (5) medium Myrtle Grove reintroduction by depositing dredged sediment
and diverting up to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second into Barataria Bay.
These features are estimated to cost $786 million; preliminary engineering has
already been initiated on four of them.
Developing a better understanding of the south Louisiana coastal ecosystem
and the effectiveness of the restoration effort by acquiring additional data,
monitoring projects, and modeling the behavior of elements of the ecosystem,
at a total cost of $100 million.
Constructing five demonstration projects (creating wetlands, conveying
sediments by pipeline, restoring pipeline canals, protecting shorelines from
further erosion, and protecting the Terrebonne barrier islands) to test methods
and try to resolve scientific or engineering uncertainties, at an estimated cost
of $175 million.
Taking sediment from proximate navigational dredging projects to create
approximately 21,000 acres of wetlands, at an estimated cost of $100 million.
Modifying existing structures to assist in the restoration, at an estimated cost
of $10 million.
Initiating 10 additional restoration “features” within the next 10 years,
including: (1) multipurpose operation of Houma Navigation and Canal lock;
(2) shoreline restoration at East Timbarlier and Isle Dernieres; (3)
maintenance of the land bridge between Caillou Lake and the Gulf; (4-6)
freshwater diversion along the Blind River, the Amite River, and at White’s
Ditch; (7) shoreline stabilization at Pointe Au Fer Island; (8) conveying water
from the Atchafalaya River to the northern Terrebonne marshes; and (9-10)
additional marsh creation at Caernarvon and Davis Pond. These features are
estimated to cost a total of $730 million.
Assessing six promising large-scale restoration concepts identified as this plan
was being prepared, at a cost of $60 million.
Summaries of the proposals have appeared in several places. This list is adapted from
a background paper prepared by the staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s
Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment prior to the July 15, 2004
hearing on this topic.
Figure 3. Restoration Features in the Tentatively Selected Plan
Source: Draft Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, p. MR-156. (Undated corrected copy)
This set of proposals is drawn from a much larger list of 166 possible restoration
features that are identified in the plan. This larger list of possible features is not
distributed equally among the four subprovinces. Of this total, 37% are in
subprovince 1, 33% are in subprovince 2, 16% are in subprovince 3, and 14% are in
subprovince 4. The differences in both the physical environment and rates of loss are
reflected in the frequency and type of restoration features that the Corps identified in
each subprovince. Features in subprovinces 1 and 2 emphasize freshwater diversions
and sediment diversions to rebuild marshlands. The most common feature in
subprovince 3 is hydrologic modification or restoration, while in subprovince 4, it is
While most of the features deal directly with wetland restorations, stabilizing
and rebuilding coastal barrier islands also will be critical to the success of this
program since they protect wetlands, marshes, and lagoons from the full force of tidal
action and ocean storms. In addition, by keeping out ocean waters, they maintain the
current balance between salt and fresh waters in the marshes. The salinity level of
the water is a major factor in determining which plant and animal communities will
thrive. Extensive surveys have been conducted to locate sand reservoirs that could
be mined to rebuild coastal barriers. Sand of the necessary texture may not be very
common in a geologic environment like the Mississippi River delta, where most of
the materials are much finer. Sand is expensive to transport because of the bulk, and
is uncommon in the necessary concentrations within the Mississippi River delta. The
USGS has identified 14 potential sand reservoirs offshore that contain about the
estimated volume that will be needed and concentrations and depths that are
economically feasible based on criteria developed by the Corps.25
The National Academy of Sciences Study. In addition to the Corps
efforts that has culminated in the restoration plan, the National Academy of
Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, is conducting a study, begun in late
2002, to explore four broad questions associated with the draft restoration plan:
! Are the strategies based on sound analysis, appropriate for the plan goals, and
an adequate list;
! Are implementation priorities appropriate, and can they be phased in;
! What major questions need to be answered to implement the plan, and how
can these needs be met; and
! Given the high cost of the plan, what are its potential benefits to the national
economy and national interest?
The Academy has not released any product from this study. Some believe that
implementation of any plan should be delayed until the Academy and others have
fully examined these four questions, because of the uncertainty raised by not having
complete answers. Calls for delay are countered by others who live in, work in, or
represent coastal Louisiana and fear that inaction will result in even greater losses.
The size or magnitude of features vary greatly, so comparing the number of features in
each subprovince is not necessarily a good comparison of the relative level of effort.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, Identifying Offshore Sand Resources
to Restore Louisiana’s Barrier Shoreline (draft) (St. Petersburg, FL: Jan., 2004), 4 pp.
Change in the rate of land loss, which will likely be based on a comparison of
the overall number of wetland acres in coastal Louisiana at different times, will be
used by the Corps and others to measure the accomplishments of the restoration
effort. This accounting will probably compare wetland losses and gains over spans
of time with baseline forecasts of losses and gains if no restoration program existed.
These differences, including its magnitude and the location of the changes, may then
be used to assess changes in other ecosystem variables, such as overall productivity,
plant or animal populations of interest, or socioeconomic changes.
Charts that show changing rates of loss in the past and predictions for the future
have been staples of recent analyses of changes. An example of such charts, from the
recent Corps analysis, is reproduced in Figure 4. The Corps calls this figure
“conceptual outcomes for
restoration.” The past is
Figure 4. Wetland (or Ecosystem)
shown by the solid line; the
Trends Over Time
future by the four dashed
lines. The figure shows,
without providing any
dates or scale, that land
was being added from year
to year until the apex of the
curve, which probably
equates with some time in
the early or mid 20th
century. The rate of loss
more recently would likely
slow in the future, even if
no remedial actions are
restoration proposals could
slow the rate of loss further
(C), stabilize the total
amount of land at about the
current level (B), or
Source: Corps Ecosystem Restoration Study, p. MR-77.
increase the land area,
resulting in a net gain (A).
Most of the Corps’ charts and the accompanying analyses measure total acres
of all wetlands. Such measures, while easy to grasp, may be insufficient for at least
two reasons. First, not all wetlands provide the same values. Wetland scientists and
others recognize many distinct types in coastal Louisiana; the Corps recognized five
in its description of the restoration study area.26 These different types occur in
response to variations in salinity levels, the height of the water table, and other
physical factors. Some types are more common than others, but these more common
The five types, as shown in a table on page MR-43, are fresh marsh, intermediate marsh,
brackish marsh, saline marsh, and swamp.
ones may not have always been so, and may not provide the desired or most
concentrated benefits. Also, the types that are easier to create or restore may not be
the types that provide the desired ecological benefits. Second, location in coastal
Louisiana is critical to defining the benefits that each wetland provides. Wetlands
that have virtually identical physical properties may provide different values because
of where they are located and the functions they serve in a broader environmental or
A more sophisticated assessment of coastal Louisiana restoration would
measure wetland losses and gains for each major type of wetland. Such an
assessment could provide more information on the condition of the remaining
wetlands, and of the wetlands that would be created by each of the proposed projects.
The Corps analysis has statistics by subprovince, on current conditions and past net
loss. It also has projections, by percentage for each of the five wetland types in each
subprovince comparing conditions today with conditions in 50 years, assuming that
no additional projects are initiated and ones currently underway are completed.
These projections show, not surprisingly, that the percentage of open water area
would grow in all four subprovinces at the expense of different types of wetlands,
with saline marsh probably suffering the greatest decline. The Corps analysis does
not compile the number of wetland acres that would be added or other benefits that
would accrue if the tentatively selected plan were implemented.
The Corps and others who support a restoration effort have tied success to an
aggregate wetlands in the coastal Louisiana landscape, and not to either a specific
wetland area beyond the four subprovinces or a specific type of wetland. The
restoration area actually is composed of numerous smaller water basins that are
largely independent of each other. Therefore, there is considerable flexibility in
where projects can be undertaken and what they must accomplish to slow and
eventually reverse the rate of loss. In this setting, the proposed program includes
eight elements that will work in concert. Three elements involving more than half
the proposed projects would introduce river water or deposit sediment into areas
where the sediment can build up to an elevation where wetland vegetation gradually
is reintroduced. The water introductions will help keep salinity at desired levels.
Other elements will deal with the stabilization and restoration of barrier islands and
beaches to protect the wetlands from the forces of the ocean, and with alterations to
the current channelization of the river. All these changes will protect the remaining
wetlands as well as expand wetlands. As these projects are put in place, the
definition of success may well evolve to reflect accomplishments and changing
perceptions of priorities for the restoration effort.
It will take many years to reverse the current trend of loss, even if these efforts
are successful. If no action is taken, the rate of land loss is forecast to decline but
continue in the future. This decline would not necessarily reflect improved
conditions, but rather that the amount of past loss has left much less wetland to be
converted. One expert has stated, “Rather than indicating that the problem is less
severe, the declining rate of loss shows us how much damage we’ve suffered
already.”27 It is also estimated that restoration projects that are already approved
could reduce future losses by up to 25%, but even with this slowing of the process,
USGS has forecast that the coastal Louisiana could lose as a much as an additional
448,000 acres of wetlands by 2050.28
Ecosystem Restoration: A Context for Considering the
Coastal Louisiana Effort
The coastal Louisiana restoration is one of several federal programs proposed
or initiated to restore ecosystems and improve environmental conditions over large
geographic areas.29 While these programs are in diverse settings, have diverse goals,
and include many different types of construction and resource management activities,
they have a number of common elements. One common element is that each of these
efforts is presented as a national, rather than regional or local, issue that justifies
significant federal financial and technical involvement in the restoration. Some other
common elements are:
! working in a coordinated manner with many public and private participants
over a large area;
! understanding complicated science, and focusing on interrelated physical and
biological parts (and how they work together) rather than specific components
(such as a single species of plant or animal);
altering the results of earlier federal programs and projects that contributed to
creating conditions that are now viewed as needing to be remedied;
maintaining and improving benefits in ecological components;
creating self-sustaining systems that minimize the need for additional
intervention in the future;
using the flexibility of an adaptive management approach;
developing extended partnerships and widespread support for the effort; and
involving multiple federal agencies and federal programs.
Coastal Louisiana restoration has several additional features in common with
many other large-scale efforts. For example, almost all of them have been centered
on water. They usually attempt to improve water quality, improve hydrology (surface
and subsurface flow patterns), or provide other water-related benefits, such as more
productive habitat in coastal areas and estuaries, in watersheds, or in the marine
environment. Examples of other water-centered projects to which the label of
ecosystem restoration has been applied are occurring in the Florida Everglades, the
Rex Caffey, professor at Louisiana State University, Agricultural Center and Louisiana
Sea Grant, statement, Water Marks, no. 24 (New Orleans District, U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, Jan. 2004), p. 6.
James Johnson and Sijan Sapkota, Highlight: Coastal Louisiana: America’s Vanishing
Wetlands and Potential Societal Catastrophe, prepared for EPA’s Second National Coastal
Condition Report, scheduled for publication 2004. No date, no pagination.
It is important to note that a federal role is not required for ecosystem restorations,
although the scale and scope of the most prominent of these efforts mean that it will almost
always be the case.
Chesapeake Bay watershed, and the Pacific Northwest (for salmon recovery). Others
are being planned or proposed, such as in the Upper Mississippi River, the California
Bay-Delta, and the Great Lakes. Supporters of these other projects are likely to press
just as hard for federal funds and support.
From the federal and congressional perspective, these restoration initiatives can
be divided into two broad groups. One group of programs has large engineering
components, and includes expensive construction projects. In this group,
exemplified by the Florida Everglades restoration, construction-based programs
usually are attempting to alter the hydrology to provide additional environmental
improvements while maintaining existing flood control and navigation benefits.
Where large engineering components are at the center of the restoration, the lead
federal agency will be one with a strong construction mission, such as the Corps or
the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec).
In the second group, construction is less important or not a part of the program.
In this group, exemplified by the Chesapeake Bay Program, the overall restoration
budgets tend to be smaller and are spread among more participants, with a greater
emphasis on broad partnerships. In these programs, providing financial and other
incentives to modify landowner behavior through activities such as installing best
management practices to limit water pollution are often more central to providing
additional environmental benefits. In this group, other federal agencies, such as the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, or the Fish and Wildlife Service, may lead the program.
Congressional endorsement in the forms of authorizations and appropriations
are central to initiating and supporting large scale restorations with significant federal
involvement, especially when they include expensive construction components. For
efforts that are not centered on construction, many activities may be done under
existing authorities and through established programs. For example, in Chesapeake
Bay, only the EPA has specific authorizing legislation under which it coordinates the
program. Many other federal agencies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation
Service in the Department of Agriculture, support the Chesapeake Bay effort by
providing additional staff and additional funding under existing programs in the bay
watershed to carry out their missions under existing authorities. In seeking
congressional support, proponents try to build a substantial record of endorsements
and justifications through the hearing process. Such an effort is currently underway
on behalf of the coastal Louisiana restoration.
The federal government is rarely the sole participant. These efforts involve
partnerships with state and local government, who provide financial resources and
local perspectives, and with other parties, including university researchers in and near
the project area and businesses and industry who may be affected by the effort. In the
Chesapeake Bay Program, many individual interests, which number in the hundreds,
work through coordinating groups that provide forums for communication and
deliberation. The Chesapeake Bay Alliance, a private group that receives funds from
EPA, performs this function, and appears to have been important to the overall
program. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation performs a similar function representing
the environmental community, and is the most visible and prominent voice for the
Success has been defined in many different ways in these efforts. The
Chesapeake Bay Program, which has been operating for more than 25 years, has
adjusted its goals against which success could be measured several times by
agreement among the major participants. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently
questioned whether the Bay Program has overstated its accomplishments, according
to press reports. Three Senators from bay states sought an assessment of the accuracy
of this claim when they requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO)
investigate the overall progress, how progress is measured, and the effectiveness of
efforts to ensure that the proper measures are being used. It may be that the same trio
of topics could usefully be explored about wetland restoration in coastal Louisiana
or any of the other large scale restorations. The Chesapeake Bay Program experience
does suggests that clear goals should be articulated early on, measures should be
established to determine the degree to which those goals are being attained, and goals
should be periodically reviewed and adjusted.
The 108th Congress has given time both to gaining a fuller understanding of the
problems of coastal Louisiana and exploring options for a federal role in any
solutions. Several House and Senate committees have held hearings. In the most
recent hearing, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s
Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment received testimony on the
Corps’ recently released draft ecosystem restoration study on July 15, 2004. In this
and other hearings on this restoration, almost all witnesses have endorsed the overall
goal of restoration and a strong federal role in working toward that goal. Some areas
of disagreement have emerged as more specific subjects are being discussed in these
hearings, as well as in public meetings in Louisiana, including specific project
priorities; levels of effort and the size of the federal and state expenditures; how costs
should be shared between the federal government and project beneficiaries; and
relationships between the federal community and state and local interests.
Proponents have been trying to authorize actions that would support the
restoration through Water Resources Development legislation, which authorizes
Corps of Engineers projects. In the House version of this legislation (H.R. 2557,
which passed the House on September 24, 2003), §5058 would establish a tenmember task force of federal and state entities to develop a comprehensive protection
and restoration plan and programmatic environmental impact statement for the
coastal Louisiana ecosystem. The task force would report on its activities to the
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Environment and
Public Works Committee. The task force would coordinate ongoing activities. The
federal government and the state would share equally the costs of this planning
The Senate version of this legislation (S. 2773, which is a substitute bill
prepared after the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works had ordered
the bill to be reported on June 23, 2004) has numerous coastal Louisiana provisions
in §3421. It would establish a nine-member task force (eight federal officials and one
state official) to make recommendations to the Secretary of the Army about all efforts
to protect and restore the coastal Louisiana ecosystem. It would submit a biennial
report to Congress summarizing its activities. In addition, the Secretary would
develop a comprehensive plan to protect and restore the south Louisiana ecosystem
and submit it to Congress by July 1, 2008.
This bill also has provisions authorizing feasibility studies and specific
activities. The Secretary would review authorized federal water resource projects in
coastal Louisiana for their compatibility with the restoration effort. The bill also
would authorize a science and technology program, with total appropriations of $50
million, to provide a forum for experts to interact with the restoration program and
make recommendations. In addition, $85 million would be authorized for
demonstration projects. All demonstration projects would be approved by the
Secretary. Other provisions would authorize $140 million for the Bayou Lafourche
sediment reintroduction project and $50 million for a program to use dredge spoil in
a beneficial manner. All projects implemented under this section would have a 35%
nonfederal cost share, and operation and maintenance for all projects would be the
responsibility of the nonfederal interest. The Secretary would ensure that nonfederal
interests provide their proportionate share. If the Secretary determines that an
activity would be justified based on predicted environmental benefits and would be
cost effective, no further economic justification would be required.
In addition to legislation that is specific to south Louisiana, Congress has been
considering other proposals since the 105th Congress that would provide a portion of
federal offshore oil and gas revenues to the state that could be used for restoration.
These proposals (H.R. 4100 and S. 2590 in the 108th Congress) would dedicate
amounts annually to specified federal natural resource programs and grants to states.
A major portion of these funds would be used to set up coastal impact assistance
programs to offset local and state costs associated with offshore oil and gas activities,
with most money going to the six states adjacent to federal waters where these
activities are occurring. Most of the proposals in prior Congresses would have
provided approximately $3 billion a year; the proposals in the 108th Congress would
provide smaller amounts. Under all the proposals that have received consideration,
Louisiana would have received more money than any other state, largely because of
the large scale of the offshore development and onshore support. This legislation
came closest to being enacted in the second session of the 106th Congress, when the
House passed a bill (H.R. 701) and the Senate Energy Committee reported an
amended version of that bill.30
As conclusion of the 108th Congress nears, it seems highly probably that it will
not act on any coastal Louisiana restoration legislation. Meanwhile, the Corps
anticipates that it will complete a final set of recommended elements soon that would
likely be the basis for further congressional deliberations in the 109th Congress.
Whether coastal restoration legislation in the 109th Congress would be similar to the
bills that were introduced in this Congress is unclear. Many questions may be
addressed in such legislation, including:
For more information, see CRS Report RL30444, Conservation and Reinvestment Act
(CARA) (H.R. 701) and a Related Initiative in the 106th Congress.
how quickly should losses end and how rapidly should wetlands be restored;
where along the Louisiana coast should restorations be concentrated;
which restoration elements are authorized; and
what portion of the total cost would the state be required to pay?
Also, any potential appropriations to implement coastal Louisiana restoration
legislation may have to compete for funding with restorations in other places such as
the Great Lakes; these debates could be particularly contentious in light of the
anticipated budget deficit. In the meantime, Louisiana will likely continue to lose
wetlands and the Corps will likely continue to design and implement some