LAFAYETTE — The members of three coastal protection groups agree on one thing: if Louisiana’s coast is going to be saved from flooding and eventual erosion, its various levee districts are going to have to work together toward a holistic solution.
That consensus came out of comments during an Acadiana Press Club luncheon in Lafayette Monday where members of the the Iberia Parish Levee, Hurricane and Conservation District, the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority and the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority spoke about the challenges facing southwest Louisiana in the coming decades.
“Coastal erosion is the biggest issue facing us in the next 50 years,” said Patrick Broussard, a member of the Iberia Parish district’s board.
According to CRPA chairman Garret Graves, the destruction to Louisiana’s coast, if left unchecked, will come back to hit the state squarely in the pocketbook.
“We’re going to go from $2 billion to $4 billion a year in losses due to flooding each year to $24 billion a year in 50 years,” Graves said. “In 2005, we spent $150 billion on storms. Can you imagine what we could have done if we had spent that $150 billion up front in preparation?”
Toward that end, the CRPA released a coastal master plan in 2012 to help guide efforts to protect the coastal ecosystem along the Gulf of Mexico. That “big picture” approach to the coastal erosion issue is essential, said IPLHCD board member Ben Langlinais.
“One thing we learned is you can’t just look at your own parish,” Langlinais said. “We need to look at coastal erosion on a hydrologic basis, not just along parish lines. We’re talking about a lot more than just flooding. We are talking about possibly losing a way of life.”
Ryan Bourriaque, who serves as the administrator for Cameron Parish as well as a board member on the Chenier Plain authority, said his challenge is to make the Vermilion, Cameron and Calcasieu residents in the Chenier Plain region aware of what is at stake for the working coast’s culture.
“After seeing what southeast Louisiana has been able to do, we realized we needed an advocate for what we wanted to do,” Bourriaque said.
The overall goal, Graves said, is for Louisiana to have a cohesive and complete defense against nature’s onslaughts, but that doesn’t happen overnight. He also said that doing things the old way doesn’t necessarily work in today’s world.
“There are projects that were approved in the 1940s that still have not been built,” Graves said. “The Corps of Engineers still operates under a 1950s model.”
Graves said that, 22 years after discussion of projects for Terrebonne Parish had begun, the Corps has not been able to move from planning to construction.
“Millions have been spent, but not a single shovel has hit the ground,” Graves said. “That has to change.”
There also has to be funding, something that the southwest Louisiana districts are struggling to overcome. A 5-mill property tax proposal in Iberia Parish failed in April by 12 votes, Langlinais said. (A half-cent sales tax on the same ballot failed by 207 votes.) The goal for his district is to let the public know why spending money to protect Iberia’s coast is important.
“Nobody considers us a coastal parish, but Marsh Island, one of the biggest barrier islands we have, is all in Iberia Parish,” Langlinais said. “When you add the perimeter of that to the 13 miles of coast we already have, we have about as much shoreline as Cameron Parish.”
Broussard said a new project between the IPLHCD and the New Iberia Chamber of Commerce will help.
“We created Step Up Iberia to help get our message across,” Broussard said. “We are working with St. Mary, with the Atchafalaya district, to coordinate or plans. We only have one more shot at this, so we need to do it right.”
Although Langlinais and Broussard agree that the last millage effort could have been better organized, they say it is essential that the development of a levee system for the parish move forward if its economic growth is to continue.
“How do you make a company comfortable investing millions of dollars here when there is a chance it will flood every three years?” Langlinais asked. “It’s a matter of economic development.”
State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, said the biggest problem is the political climate, which is a stumbling block in the way of getting the public to approve funding. But that can be overcome, she said, through education.
“If we protect Cameron, Vermilion, Calcasieu, and Iberia, we also protect Lafayette and Acadia and other areas,” Champagne said. “We need to let people know we provide resources for the entire nation. This is not just a local problem.”
Graves agreed that perception will be the key to securing any sort of funding at the local level.
“It is actually more fiscally conservative to make good investments on the front end,” Graves said. “The lesson learned over the last 100 years is that all three (local, state and federal) have to work together.”