Basin Program Plan Moves On

With the completion of the last of three public meetings around the Basin, this one in Morgan City on November 24, the Atchafalaya Basin Program staff moves into the next phase of preparation of the 2011 Annual Plan for the Program. The Draft Plan will be brought back to the Research and Promotion Board, the governing body of the Program, with a summary of comments and copies of the comment cards collected at the three public meetings. The Board will decide which comments to incorporate into the Plan before it goes to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority for final review prior to Legislative action. The Board will accept the comments and Staff recommendations based on those comments at a special December 2, 2009 public meeting at 9:30 AM at the LaSalle Building in downtown Baton Rouge (617 N. 3rd Street). The meeting will be held in the LaBelle Room on the 1st Floor.

The Meetings

The three meetings were different in character, with different interests expressed by the participants. Each meeting drew between 10 and 20 attendees from the public, organizations and public agencies, including local representatives of each hosting parish. At all three meetings, Glenn Constant of US Fish and Wildlife represented the Technical Advisory Group and used early versions of the Basin Total Inventory and Assessment Tools to demonstrated the process used by the TAG to evaluate and select projects for recommendation in the Draft 2011 Plan. There was widespread support for the new process, which allows the TAG to evaluate projects based on a better understanding of the past and current conditions in the Basin, and to present conclusions along with the information that supported their decisions.

In Plaquemine, participants were interested in the East Grand Lake/Flat Lake Water Management Unit Projects, which comprise most of the water projects in the 2011 plan. They liked the idea of opening some of the silted waterways but were worried about the effect of sediment getting deeper into the swamp. This is recurring theme in the Basin and the attention to managing sediment by the TAG and the Basin Program Staff draws support from most attendees. Folks at the Plaquemine meeting were also interested in the Bayou Sorrell Boat Landing project. But concern was voiced about work needed in the area north of Upper Grand River. The Brown Bayou Project is proposed in that area, but there is still concern about needing more water coming down from the Nouth.

In Henderson, crawfishermen and environmentalists turned out to offer some support for the new process, but also to question the results of past work in Buffalo Cove and to reitterrate their calls for better boundary markings and more State activity in identifying State land incorrectly claimed by private parties. The strongest comments from the west side continue to support projects which reintroduce traditional water flow patterns by opening historic waterways and filling artificial east-west canals with spoil from the artificially high banks created by the dredging of those canals.

In Morgan City, where the water is more plentiful, if not always healthy, there was more concern about completing recreation projects defined in the State Master Plan  and reinforced in legislation and annual planning processes, before the recent changes in funding allocation caused by Act 606 of the 2008 Legislature.  You can read more about the current process and the effects of Act 606 in the Draft Plan.

The public meetings were productive and participation was good. The Basin Program, the TAG and the oversight committees are to be commended for their commitments to the transparency promoted by Act 606, for patience in addressing many public concerns, and for persistence in getting the Draft Plan through a tight schedule. This year’s plan is better than last year’s and there are reasons for optimism that improvements will continue to come, in the analysis tools, the selection process, and finally, in the work in the Basin to produce improvements in the habitat for plants, animals and people.

Public Participation

Continued participation by many interested parties will be required. As we move into the construction phase of approved projects, we will need to support the Basin Program in it’s work to maintain the concept of transparent operation through the monitoring and evaluation stages. The idea of “adaptive management“, or modifying our actions as results show positive or negative impacts, when compared to our original objectives, will require public review of those results and input from those who proposed the original actions. We must learn as we go and each project needs followup into the future. There is no “completion” of projects which modify the processes in the Basin, only more monitoring of effects, and continual maintenance of the system. Now that we have accepted responsibility for managing the once-natural environment, we need to continue to get better at reading the trends and modifying the results.

Public Policy

Finally, there will be no significant changes in the function of the Basin hydrology or the health of the swamps until we, as a nation, decide that the health of the ecosystems in the Floodway are at least as important as the functioning of the system for flood control and transportation. The Corps has been directed by the Congress in the Water Resources and Development Act of 2007 (Section 7002) to “develop a comprehensive plan for protecting, preserving, and restoring the coastal Louisiana ecosystem”, building “the framework of a long-term program integrated with hurricane and storm damage reduction, flood damage reduction, and navigation activities that provide for the comprehensive protection, conservation, and restoration of the wetlands, estuaries, barrier islands, shorelines, and related land and features of the coastal Louisiana ecosystem, including protection of critical resources, habitat, and infrastructure from the effects of a coastal storm, a hurricane, erosion, or subsidence;”. The Plan is to specifically consider “the maximum effective use of the water and sediment of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers for coastal restoration purposes consistent with flood control and navigation;” and “an investigation and assessment of alterations in the operation of the Old River Control Structure, consistent with flood control and navigation purposes;”. The intent of the legislation is obviously focused on Coastal Restoration and increasing recognition is being given to the importance of considering the Atchafalaya Basin as part of the coastal area management equation.

It is imperative that we participate in the development of the plan and subsequent decisions concerning the Basin and the coast. Survival of the Basin as a distinct environment will depend on a comprehensive plan that accommodates not just flood control and transportation and not just the area below the intracoastal waterway, but the health of the Floodway, as well.

Stay tuned here for more developments, get out to the meetings, and ask the hard questions.