A comprehensive plan to restore the land was drawn up in 1996 by dozens of groups brought together by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP). The plan included small water diversions and land-building by piping in sediments from nearby areas. "That allows us to put the sediments where we need them in the shortest period of time," says Kerry St. Pé, BTNEP’s executive director. The plan was approved by both the state of Louisiana and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but little has been implemented.
In 1998, the Corps of Engineers released its Coast 2050 plan, a $14 billion proposal that would have protected or restored almost half a million acres of wetlands in the Barataria basin. But the federal government requested a cheaper $2 billion version, which Congress was considering when the hurricanes struck in 2005.
After that disaster, the state of Louisiana formed the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which came up with a new plan last April. Its executive summary states, "[R]estoring sustainability to the coastal landscape is a priority [requiring] diversions of Mississippi and Atchafalaya River water."
These massive freshwater diversions would bring major salinity changes to the wetlands system that St. Pé says will not be acceptable to the diverse stakeholders who supported the BTNEP plan, especially bayou residents.
"It would destroy our way of life," says St. Pé, whose family has lived in the area for seven generations. "You can’t raise oysters, you can’t catch brown shrimp, you can’t catch blue crabs or spotted sea trout in a fresh water system," he says.
In May, the CPRA plan sailed unanimously through both houses of the Louisiana legislature and was approved by then-Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. But taking action awaits the final plan of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, due this winter.
Many in coastal Louisiana are unimpressed with the Corps’s track record. Environmentalists, commercial fishers and residents complain that the Corps engages in endless planning but drags its feet on implementation.
The oil and gas industry, which is responsible for much of the wetland destruction, has not offered to help offset the damage. Instead, it supports a public relations campaign."When we started drilling the wetlands back in the "30s or "40s, no one thought they had any value; it was just swamp land," says Larry Wall, spokesman for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. "And people wanted the oil and gas removed. So we used the best technology we had then. From about the 1980s, we quit using pits, we started mitigating canals by filling in one if we built another. And we tried to lessen the footprint of drilling activities."
Restoration advocates acknowledge industry improvements, but say the state and federal governments have let a politically powerful industry off the hook. Meanwhile, they united behind passage of the federal Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which would have authorized $4 billion for new levees, wetlands restoration and the closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. WRDA was the first bill to survive a presidential veto and become law last November. In it, dollars for coastal Louisiana were cut to $1.9 billion.