The Morasses of Louisiana’s Coastal Wetland Restoration, Part 2
This is Part 2 of a two-part blog. The first part of the blog considered the causes of land loss and what the State of Louisiana has done (and not done) to address them. This second part considers what could be done to address land loss without sacrificing environmental justice. The full-length article with references will be available at https://ristroph.wordpress.com/articles/.
Louisiana residents have little control over the forces of climate change that are eroding, flooding, and storming the state. But this section outlines some things that State of Louisiana can still theoretically accomplish.
First of all, oil companies should be required to restore the canals they dredged and repair the damage that can feasibly be repaired. This should be far cheaper and more sustainable than creating new temporary islands. When I pointed this out during my work with state and federal agencies, I was met with eye rolling and awkward laughter. The State does not want to do this. The 2017 Coastal Master Plan is silent on canal restoration. State legislators intimately involved in the industry have passed bills to snuff out any lawsuit that might require the industry to take responsibility for its actions.
Vulnerability Reduction Credits
Second, prior to embarking on massive projects such as the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion, there is a need for more meaningful and transparent consideration of the costs and benefits of alternative investments, economic, social and governance (ESG) perspectives. If the diversion is implemented, it will temporarily reduce the effect of relative sea level rise and storm surge flooding for New Orleans and lands just north of the diversion. But wetland creation will not be visible in Barataria Bay (near the project area) for a couple of decades, and wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi will decrease faster with the diversion than without. Further, by the end of the century, sea level rise will likely overtake all of the lands built by the diversion and other projects.
While an environmental impact statement (EIS) is in the works, it has been clear all along that the project will move forward as described in the 2017 Coastal Master Plan, and not along the lines of any alternative included in the EIS for purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). What is not clear is whether the diversion is worth the financial investment, not to mention the potentially detrimental impacts to communities downriver of the project area and oyster fishers.
The Higher Ground Foundation’s Vulnerability Reduction Credit (VRC) system could be a method for assessing the benefits of projects like these and encouraging investment in projects that are likely to reduce climate change vulnerability. The VRC system assigns each project a certain amount of credits based on the costs that the project will avoid. These costs include easily measurable monetary costs such as property loss as well as other costs to human well-being (measured by methods such as contingent valuation). To encourage projects that benefit poorer, historically marginalized communities, the costs for such projects are multiplied by a factor that increases the credits. Credits (payouts to the investors who foot the bill for the project) are assigned for a period of ten years. After each ten-year period, the project is evaluated to determine if it achieved the anticipated benefits. The project may then be re-credited with an adjusted amount of credits to reflect the updated value of avoided costs.
Projects that ensure climate resilience through demonstrated and validated climate adaptation measures are awarded transferrable VRCs by the Higher Ground Foundation. Crucially, as VRCs are only earned if a project is maintained and evaluated over an agreed time period, they incentivise sustained adaptation behaviour and can promote commitment to adaptation projects beyond the scope of political or business cycles. Only projects that follow a thorough and scientifically validated review of the reduced vulnerability as measured in avoided impacts are registered and may be awarded VRCs. The VRC Standard Framework provides the requirements for developing projects and methodologies, including clear baseline regimes, as well as the requirements for validation and monitoring, of projects and verification of the project outputs. And while VRCs are a quantified, fungible instrument, very clear, qualitative and quantitative thresholds must be met to ensure that harm, and certainly catastrophic harm, is avoided. Community consultation is another important requirement, including special requirements for projects in indigenous communities.
In Louisiana’s situation, each potential coastal restoration projects should be fully evaluated, with all potential benefits and costs monetized for comparison, and with due consideration of the wider ESG concerns. The analysis should not just be the project lifespan (which is only 20 years for islands and 50 years for diversions)—it should extend to 2100 (the time when sea level rise will likely inundate restoration projects). Costs and benefits should be adjusted to avoid projects with unmitigated disproportionate impacts on environmental justice communities. The VRC registration and issuance process, provides a comprehensive, systematic and transparent approach to evaluate alternative projects that may shine light on the relative benefits and ensure wider risks and community concerns are taken into account.
Plan for Compensation and Relocation
If the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project and others like it are to go forward, there must be mitigation measures in place to address the potential harm, particularly in the context of environmental justice communities that may be displaced by flooding. To date, there has been little (if any) public discussion of such mitigation.
It is important to note that environmental justice communities and other coastal communities are going to face negative impacts regardless of whether the diversions take place, because sea level is rising, storm surge and community flooding is increasing, and there is more and more open water that affects the fisheries that these communities depend on. Socially vulnerable families may lack the means to leave, find better housing, or pay higher flood insurance rates. Elderly residents and people tied to their traditional lands and lifeways may want to stay put, while younger and potentially more adaptable residents have been migrating northward and inland for decades. This selective out-migration leaves an older, poorer, and more vulnerable population behind.
CPRA’s coastal management plan gives no consideration whatsoever to the need to relocate coastal residents out of harm’s way. This task has been left to Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptation for Future Environments (LA SAFE), a partnership between the Louisiana Office of Community Development and the private Foundation for Louisiana. Since much of the funding for LA SAFE comes from a U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant related to the six Louisiana parishes most impacted by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, all of the entity’s funding goes to projects in these six parishes. As shown in the figure below, Louisiana has twenty coastal parishes. LA SAFE’s 2019 adaptation plan focuses heavily on the relocation of Isle de Jean Charles, which the state is carrying out through a one-time funding opportunity, and little on any other relocation strategy.
CPRA should work with LA SAFE to come up with a meaningful relocation strategy for residents in all 20 parishes in the coastal zone that are likely to be in harm’s way due to increased flooding, erosion, hurricanes, and sea level rise. This plan should be based on difficult conversations with residents about who would be willing to relocate, where they would be willing to relocate to, and how the receiving areas could accommodate new residents. Engagement should be on the terms of the residents, whether these means online meetings, small group meetings, or phone calls that accommodate residents’ schedules.
Meaningful Adaptive Management with Meaningful Public Participation
The proposed diversions have been subject to extensive modeling as to how they will affect the environment. But there are still uncertainties and scientific disagreement regarding their efficacy. If the diversions are to move forward, it is important to have a robust adaptive management plan to provide for corrective action if things go wrong. By “adaptive management,” I mean a process that sets management goals, monitors outcomes, and refines management to incorporate lessons learned.
The BP settlement reserved a certain amount of money for adaptive management to address unforeseen contingencies that could arise with coastal restoration. As part of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion EIS and EISs for other projects, state and federal agencies are indeed developing adaptive management plans. At this point, the plans are essentially about monitoring—there are no contingency plans in the event of serious damages. There is nothing to address the potential for contaminated river water to upset the ecosystems where it is diverted. “Adaptive management” without the political will or funding to change course is meaningless.
Restoration projects and plans take place in a state where science bends to politics, and historically marginalized communities have little access to science and limited ability to participate in decision-making. The public meetings (now webinars in which no questions are allowed, only comments) do little to remedy this deficit of participation. Agencies responsible for developing the adaptive management plan ignored my recommendation that local people be involved in monitoring of environmental conditions, perhaps through something as simple as a phone app (or a phone hotline for those that don’t use smart phones).
An example is the app that the group I See Change has been using in New Orleans to track local flooding and heat conditions. It doesn’t require special training, and it doesn’t ask people to spend a lot of time going to public meetings. Having an app to monitor environmental change associated with diversions could increase the understanding of local residents and participation in the project, and it would provide knowledge that people in Baton Rouge and New Orleans would not have otherwise.
Louisiana and federal agencies are making use of Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement money to fund coastal restoration projects that will provide short-term benefits to urban centers and certain sectors of the State and potentially detrimental impacts to other sectors. Pro forma environmental assessments and impacts statements are being carried out, as required by NEPA. But these analyses are carried out with a narrow lens, focused only on project lifetimes and project areas. They do not provide a big picture analysis of how coastal restoration and human adaptation should take place. CPRA’s Coastal Restoration Master Plan should serve this function, but it does not. Rather, it is a portfolio of select projects contingent on funding from disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon Spill.
LA SAFE, situated in a different silo, is contingent on grant funding and has no State-backed mandate or funding to provide for long-term adaptation. As such, coastal restoration marches on, project by project, with little thought to long term costs and benefits or the need for community relocation.
The Higher Ground Foundation’s VRC Standard Framework and requirements for project registration and monitoring are one promising approach that could be deployed to provide a transparent, big-picture perspective on the costs, benefits, impacts and avoided impacts of projects.
Louisiana, we can do better. Let’s grab the low-hanging fruit: hold industry responsible for restoring oil field canals or do it yourself. Bring together CPRA and LA SAFE, and work with coastal residents to develop a big picture plan for how adaptation will take place over the rest of the century. Develop a meaningful cost-benefit analysis to select and fund certain restoration projects, along the lines of Vulnerability Reduction Credits. Make sure you use the right numbers for sea level rise. Draw on resident input to analyze project results so they can be improved over time, and be ready to change course. We may or may not be able to restore coastal wetlands for a longer than a few decades. But we can avoid perpetuating a morass of privileged winners and marginalized losers.
 Eugene Turner and G McClenachan, Reversing wetland death from 35,000 cuts: Opportunities to restore Louisiana’s dredged canals, 13 PLoS ONE e0207717 (2018).  Torbjörn E. Törnqvist,, Krista L. Jankowski, Yong-Xiang Li1, Juan L. González, Tipping points of Mississippi Delta marshes due to accelerated sea-level rise, 6 Science Advances 1, 3.  The Higher Ground Foundation, Vulnerability Reduction Credits (VRCs) Standard Framework, V1.1 (March 2018). https://www.thehighergroundfoundation.org/standard-framework (last visited August 25, 2020).  Craig E. Colten, Jessica R.Z. Simms, Audrey A. Grismore, and Scott A. Hemmerling, Social Justice and Mobility in Coastal Louisiana, USA, 18(2) Reg Environ Change 371 (2018).  La. Rev. Stat. Art. 49, §214.24.  HUD, Notice of National Disaster Resilience Competition Grant Requirements, 81 Fed. Reg. 36557 (June 7, 2016).  Ruhl, supra note 20, at 1388; Yee Huang et al, Climate Change and the Puget Sound: Building the Legal Framework for Adaptation, 2 Climate L. 299, 309 (2011); Craig & Ruhl, supra note 9.