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U.S. Senator David Vitter, presented at the Awards Banquet for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, March 11, 2005


Keynote Speech: Awards Banquet for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, March 11, 2005

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me here this evening. I am honored to be here as you present awards to the folks who are devoting themselves to an issue that is crucial to Louisiana’s future. It is also an issue that is at the top of my legislative agenda: saving Louisiana’s coast.

 While we have all heard the facts and figures that I am about to recite, it is important to continue to repeat them over and over.

I know that I do to whoever will listen in Washington.

Louisiana’s coast is vanishing. We lose up to 35 square miles of coastal wetlands each and every year, an astonishing figure. That is equivalent to losing an area equal in size to a football field every 38 minutes. Experts tell us that the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands began in the last century, and Louisiana has shrunk in land area by nearly 1,900 square miles – an area almost as large as the State of Delaware. Almost 1.3 million acres of Louisiana wetlands, much of it critical habitat, have disappeared to date. And, as acknowledged by the Administration, these wetlands losses are attributable, at least in part, to past federal policies and actions.

What do you think the federal government’s response would have been if Joe Q Public or Joe Q Company, rather than the federal government, had been at fault for the loss of some of the most productive wetlands areas in the country? Well, we know what the federal response was in at least one recent case, where a private party adversely impacted seven acres of wetlands. There, the government went to great lengths to put the offender in jail, imposed a steep fine, and required him to deed several acres of land for a park.

In reality, what has been the federal government’s response to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands crisis? The answer is that, for most of the last century, it has done very little. Yes of course, in recent decades, there have been multiple studies, and even some recent restoration projects. For example, in the last 15 years, various federal agencies – working with the State of Louisiana – have created or restored about 80 square miles of coastal wetlands. But these projects have been localized remedies and not a comprehensive response to what is a problem with nationwide implications.

That brings me to a discussion of Louisiana’s natural resources, and the implications of the federal government’s not acting aggressively to restore Louisiana’s coast.

First, consider that the Louisiana coast is key to our nation’s energy industry, producing about $30 billion a year in petroleum products. Offshore Louisiana has the country’s richest oil and gas resources. An estimated 64% of all oil, gas, and coal produced on federal lands or waters in the United States are produced right here in offshore Louisiana. Our state accounts for 20 percent of the energy used by the entire United States.

Also, the Louisiana coast is home to the infrastructure and resources that support the energy industry. What consumer would want to pay an extra 2 or 3 dollars per gallon for gas should Louisiana’s coastal resources and infrastructure disappear?

Consider, too, that Louisiana has the largest port system in the world. Our state has five of the 12 biggest ports in the United States. Over 36 states depend on the maritime commerce on Louisiana’s waterways to receive goods and services.

Also consider that our state – which is only 1.5 percent of the area of the entire United States – handles 21 percent of the total waterborne commerce in the country. Without restoration of Louisiana’s coast, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and other navigation channels would be destroyed. The result would be that American consumers would have to pay more for the goods they purchase.

Finally, consider that Louisiana’s coastal wetlands serve as a barrier from hurricanes and also serve as habitat for a variety of endangered species, fish, and waterfowl. Indeed, according to one estimate, nearly 98 percent of the species in the Gulf of Mexico depend on Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem for survival. Without further action, Louisiana’s complex coastal ecosystem could be severely compromised.

Given the importance of coastal Louisiana to the region, the state, and the entire nation, it is only just that the federal government take an active role in the effort to save Louisiana’s coast.

The President and the U.S House of Representatives have made some positive efforts in this respect – the House has approved dedicated funding streams for Louisiana’s coast. The House has – twice – passed actual funding of 1 billion dollars to fight coastal erosion.

Then, last year we had a significant year for progress – for laying the building blocks – of a federal commitment to fight Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis.

First, in the Administration’s budget submission to Congress, there was a statement that admitted that federal policies and actions are partly to blame for the crisis of coastal erosion. That was the first time a presidential budget submission included such a statement.

Next, in the House Budget Resolution, I was able to insert a statement underlying the importance of addressing Louisiana’s coastal restoration and allowing for increased federal participation in the efforts.

And then we reached agreement on the near-term plan. This near-term plan was a first step, but a very important one in the fight against coastal erosion. It was a breakthrough in terms of a federal commitment.

During the formulation of this near-term plan, I met with the President, the director of the OMB, and a number of other administration officials, focusing on five key objectives for guiding the work that will address critical needs and lay the groundwork for future restoration efforts.

Here are the five key goals that we achieved with the near-term proposal:

First we got release of the substance of the full Louisiana Coastal Area Study.

All of the science and other findings of the original draft of the LCA study were included in the near-term plan. This near-term plan overlays that information with a focus on near-term objectives, but all the substance is there. And having this information publicly available is very important so that we all understand the further effort that will be needed.

Second, we made sure the Near-Term Plan is significant in terms of dollars.

This plan represents the most significant plan to date from the federal government to commit the needed resources to Louisiana’s coast. It’s not – yet – the $14 billion that we need, but it is a significant start.

Thirdly, we’re starting concrete work sooner, rather than later.

The initial plan by the Army Corps and the Administration was to plan for work to actually begin in 2008. I thought this was unacceptable, and, at my insistence – more like my yelling, pushing, and prodding – the schedule for actual substantive work to begin was pushed up to 2006. We have to act now, because as we all know – time is not on our side.

The fourth goal I felt it was crucial for us to achieve was including significant diversion projects.

To address Louisiana’s coastal crisis, we cannot continue focusing only on the smaller projects. These smaller projects over the years have been very helpful, but I felt strongly that it was time to step up the pace and include significant diversion projects. This near-term plan did with the inclusion of diversion projects such as the Diversion at Hope Canal and the Myrtle Grove Diversion in the “fast-tracked” projects.

Finally, I insisted that the near-term plan represent an agreement that this is a start and not the end. And I believe that everyone involved does indeed understand that – the President, the Corps, the state, and me.

The important start of this near-term effort will be a failure – simply wasted money – unless it leads to further effective projects. With this plan we are laying the groundwork to continue the efforts and save and protect Louisiana’s coast in the long-term.

Unfortunately, in the recent past, the U.S. Senate did not follow the House’s aggressive push to save our coast. An example of a missed opportunity is when the U.S. Senate last fall cleared a Water Resources Development Authorization – the vehicle for funding our coastal restoration. That bill had provisions relating to the near-term plan; if enacted, it would have authorized just 376 million dollars for Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts – not nearly enough, in my view. Well, Congress didn’t complete action on this bill, and the legislation died when the 108 th Congress adjourned in December 2004.

Now that I have been elected to the U.S. Senate, I am bringing the aggressive approach of the House to the upper body – whether they are ready or not.

Upon assuming my seat in the U.S. Senate in January 2005, I made every effort to win membership on the committee with oversight of coastal issues. My intention, from the beginning, was to use my position on that committee to advocate for more federal funding for coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana.

I’m happy to say I was awarded a spot on that committee and I have already invited the chairman of the committee to tour our coast, so that he can see first hand the effects if we do not make a significant federal investment in coastal Louisiana.

The committee which takes up coastal erosion legislation in the Senate is the Environment and Public Works Committee. As the newest member of that committee, I am working aggressively to secure federal funding for America’s Wetlands in the latest Water Resources Development Act reauthorization bill. Just last week, in fact, I arranged a meeting for Governor Blanco, Senator Landrieu, and myself with Administration officials and the chairman of the Environment Committee. We used this meeting to advocate for the inclusion of federal funding for coastal Louisiana in that Water Resources Development Act bill.

Legislation to revise and extend the Water Resources Development bill will be considered by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in April of this year.

Under this year’s bill, as under last year’s WRDA bill, the money authorized for coastal Louisiana will likely be spent on a science and technology program, various demonstration projects, and beneficial use of dredged material by the Corps of Engineers.

A science and technology program would provide the scientific data needed to improve our overall understanding of coastal wetland ecosystem processes. Demonstration projects would resolve critical scientific and engineering uncertainties. Beneficial use of dredged material in areas near existing navigation channels would take advantage of ongoing maintenance dredging; the Corps has estimated that there is the potential to use up to 30 million cubic yards of material a year.

I also expect that this year’s WRDA bill, like last year’s WRDA measure, will include a requirement that the Corps develop a plan for modifying the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet to deal with the navigation interests, environmental restoration, and threats to life and property.

When Congress takes up this year’s WRDA bill, I plan to call for the inclusion of language requiring the Corps of Engineers – in cooperation with other federal agencies – to deliver a comprehensive restoration plan to Congress. And I will suggest that the new WRDA reauthorization bill should call for those federal agencies with a stake in coastal Louisiana to form a multi-agency task force.

Finally, I am searching for creative ways to ensure a continuing federal spending mechanism for Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts, and I will be introducing legislation on this subject in the near future.

I look forward to continuing the work with my Louisiana colleagues in the U.S. Congress, the Governor’s Office, and you, ladies and gentlemen, to take the next steps needed to quickly address this crisis situation.

Because this is not a Republican or Democrat issue. The disappearing Louisiana coast is an urgent issue. We must – and we will – save it.

Once again, thank you for inviting me to this important event.