Fixing Permitting Problems Essential To Eliminating Coastal Restoration Time And Cost Overruns

In a New Year letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R. King Milling, chair of America’s WETLAND Foundation (AWF), says time is running out to save Louisiana’s coast and urgent, emergency action must be considered, including repairing a broken Federal permitting process.

Specifically, AWF is calling for actions that will provide incentives for private landowners which would not require them to re-title land to the Federal government for project authorization and would allow general or emergency permits predicated on consistent previous activity as allowance for new restoration projects.

Milling noted that “…in a few months the Louisiana Legislature will consider the third iteration of its Master Plan for Coastal Protection & Restoration in Louisiana. You and your colleagues at the U.S.A.C.E. have been strong and continuous partners with the state through numerous executive administrations at the Federal and state levels. I write today to ask your consideration of approving tactical guidelines that can address the need for urgency in restoring one of the nation’s most productive and threatened coastal areas.”

The letter comes on the heels of a recent study released by The Water Institute of the Gulf, Restore the Mississippi River Coalition, and Coast Builders Coalition stating that “delays in creating wetlands and ridgesin open water with sediment dredged from elsewhere could balloon costs by 200 percent to 600 percent. That’s because of additional wetlands erosion, increased construction costs and inflation during the delays. The dredging projects make up about $18 billion of the $25 billion in restoration that was proposed in the 2012 version of the state’s 50-year, $50 billion coastal master plan. Delays could add $5 billion or more to the total.”

“While we applaud this recent report, it seems silent on some of the primary obstacles that lead to project cost and time overruns, namely a burdensome process that often undermines projects intended to restore wetlands through endless reviews or rejected solutions by any one of multiple Federal agencies,” Val Marmillion, AWF managing director, said.

For the better part of a decade, AWF has issued recommendations to streamline the planning and permitting processes of the Federal government as essential to achieving coastal restoration before the rate of land loss overwhelms the potential for restoring certain areas and stopping the land loss in others.

“Considering the rate of land loss, business as usual isn’t working. At issue are the process, timelines and expanding costs to complete restoration projects,” Milling said. “With the understandable missions of Federal agencies to protect the nation’s natural resources, certain regulations, rules and guidelines have been promulgated, which appear sensible but in practice serve to undermine the very aims of conservation, sustainability and restoration. In the ensuing years since Louisiana declared war on coastal land loss, the state, private land owners, NGOs and local governments have found that the fatigue and eventual losing propositions of attaining permits to pursue restoration are overwhelming.”

For those who have followed the issue over the years, there appears to be a double standard at play; on the one hand, earnest calls to speed up the restoration process appear ubiquitous but when it comes to an actual permit application, individual Federal agencies and leaders of some environmental NGOs file objections that delay or void the benefits of restoration projects that have been the subject of years of study.

“They can’t have it both ways – promoting regulations that create unending approval processes in Washington and then advocating for the opposite by pushing large scale restoration projects that will soon be wrapped up in bureaucratic red tape,” Marmillion said.

“We are well past the moment when broadly written regulations for all environments work in a place like Louisiana, experiencing some of the greatest rates of land loss on the planet.”

By issuing general or emergency permits, AWF has argued that approved permits that have followed extensive, exhaustive environmental reviews should be allowed for piggy-back permits of similar impact, otherwise the targeted land for restoration will be gone and the process proved impractical.