Basin Background Info

Background and observations on the Atchafalaya Basin Program

[Ed. Note: This document was prepared by documentarian Charles Caillouet, a former contractor to the Atchafalaya Basin Program, a founder of the Friends of the Atchafalaya, and a current member of the Atchafalaya Trace Commission. It represents the views of the author and some FOA members but may include opinions that are not in agreement with other members of the FOA. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of the Staff or other members of the Trace Commission. Please gather perspectives from other observers and develop your own opinions.] 

In the 1980s, Federal money was set aside for conservation and restoration of the Atchafalaya Basin, but for a decade, the State did not step up to the plate to provide the local match required to get the project moving. In 1996, Governor Foster directed the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to take the lead in developing a plan for the Basin. In 1997, an agreement was signed among the agencies involved in various aspects of Basin oversight and an advisory committee of agency personnel and volunteer citizens was formed to create a plan. In 1998, the State Master Plan was completed and submitted to the People of Louisiana, the Governor, and the Legislature, and in 1999, the Atchafalaya Basin Program (ABP) was legislatively created in the DNR to function as the State partner to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

According to the enabling legislation, the Basin Program was to

  1. Develop, implement, and manage a comprehensive state master plan for the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System (ABFS), Louisiana Project (ABFS).
  2. Coordinate state implementation of congressional mandates concerning the ABFS.
  3. Serve as primary liaison on behalf of the state with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps)on the ABFS including representation of the state in state and federal partnerships, cost andshare agreements, and other public and private cooperative endeavors.”

The ABP also took on all the coordinating responsibilities required to manage and execute the State share of the Federal/State partnership and interface with the oil and gas interests. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF) was to sample and monitor Basin conditions and deal with invasive species. Each of the other State departments had specific responsibilities appropriate to its missions. The Federal funding was $250 million and the State share was estimated to be $50 million over 15 years.

The State Master Plan mission statement called us to “conserve, restore, and enhance (where possible) the natural habitat and to give all people the opportunity to enjoy the Atchafalaya Experience.” While the Master Plan specifically addressed the area inside the floodway levees, it called out Recreation features to be developed adjacent to and outside the levees so that development inside the levees could be avoided. Those features were as much a part of the Basin Plan as the Water Management, Environmental Easement, and Public Access features because the Plan recognized the need for widespread public support for the huge conservation commitment.

In the early days of the Basin Program, it was difficult to acquire State funding for maintenance projects, so the Corps of Engineers was relied on for Water Management project development. The Corps was also responsible for Environmental Easement and Public Access land purchase. The Basin project focused on Recreation projects, including construction of boat landings and tourism support infrastructure outside the levees. The State also improved Public Access by paving roads adjacent to the levees.

As the Program matured, it became clear that there was no serious interest in the Corps for making serious modifications to the Floodway to affect changes in water flow. Major decisions had been made during the design of the Floodways to limit water into the swamps so that the majority of the available water would continually scour out the newly straightened Main Channel. East and West channels would be maintained only for transportation access and to assist in transporting the massive amounts of water described as the “Project Flood”, the maximum capacity of the Floodway System, when all the gates would be open to protect the areas along the lower Mississippi River. Channel “scouring” would minimize maintenance costs for dredging the Main Channel and provide a built-in expansion tool to increase the cross section of the Channel over time.

The major 2011 flood event provides evidence for the success of the Corps approach to Channel maintenance, but it also demonstrates the effects of the Law of Unintended Consequences as private land continues to fall off into the Whiskey Bay  Pilot Channel because of the apparently unstoppable growth of the straightened River. The scouring of the Main Channel and the related closures of historical outlets from the river combine with the build-up of spoil banks along east-west pipelines and access channels to aggravate the loss of life-giving water flow into the deep swamp. Narrow openings of streams in an attempt to solve the water problem only makes it worse as large amounts of sediment pour into the unnatural openings and clog the streams even more.

Natural water introduction to the swamps often occurred in sheet flow, building natural levees, and ridges slowly built up, allowing water with less sediment into the swamp areas. Eventually, the ridges became bottomland hardwood forests but the process took many tens of years. Today, the remaining pathways can be blocked in a few years by the exaggerated river stages and flow volumes resulting from levees and straightened channels.

The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1975 changed the criteria for Water Management projects by requiring an in-depth evaluation of the potential environmental impact of any activity that could modify a natural environment. But the decisions had been made and much of the construction for the ABFS had already been completed before those changes took effect. An Environmental Impact Statement was developed after the fact for the ABFS but it basically rubber-stamped the earlier decisions and did not take seriously the damage that was already occurring in the swamps.

Realizing the dire condition of many areas in the Floodway, concerned Legislators worked with DNR officials and, in 2008, created a new directive for the Basin Program that would focus more State activity on Water Management than on Recreation, while providing some funding to complete commitments made by the Program in earlier years. Along with the Legislative modifications to the Program, an Atchafalaya Basin Conservation Fund was created from severance taxes generated in the Basin so that the Program would eventually get enough money to actually enable practical restoration projects. Louisiana voters approved the Fund as a Constitutional Amendment in 2010 but the Program still awaits adequate severance tax receipts to trigger transfers into the Fund. Some estimates indicate that transfers could begin as early as 2014, but the actual date depends on the amount and price of products extracted from the Floodway.

Since the 2008 changes in the Program, the process of collecting public input, of scientifically analyzing and documenting proposals, and of disseminating the decisions to the public has been improved. Interest and support for the Program by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has assisted in improving the process. Unfortunately, in the weak economic environment, funding for conservation and restoration efforts has been scarce and lack of support by private landowners in the Basin has made completion of many projects impossible.

One of the crown jewels of the “new” Basin Program is the Natural Resource Inventory and Assessment System (NRIAS), developed in coordination with the member organizations of the Technical Advisory Group, which was officially created in the 2008 legislation. The NRIAS is hosted by the US Geological Survey at .  Budget cuts have eliminated future funding for the NRIAS and other sources are being pursued.

The changes identified in Governor Jindal’s proposed 2014 budget document would simply eliminate the Atchafalaya Basin Program and “its functions” would be moved to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, although the personnel positions currently required to administer the Program do not show up in the DWF budget. That implies that the “functions” of the Basin Program will be absorbed by DWF personnel that currently have other responsibilities and priorities, and that translates to loss of civil servants with a primary responsibility to advocate for the Basin and all of its users, in all areas of concern.

A lateral transfer of responsibilities between State departments, without an office having dedicated personnel, and the subsequent loss of continuity, could be devastating to the ongoing State projects and to relationships with outside organizations like the Corps of Engineers, and would make development of new tools like the NRIAS less likely.

In the midst of increased concern for the loss of natural ecosystems to help us deal with climate change, more serious storms, and coastal land loss, programs like the Atchafalaya Basin Program need increased support, not elimination and diffusion of responsibilities. Questionable budget cutting like this is narrow, short-term thinking and does not belong on the table today.