The sandy dunes and quiet beach on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, near the end of Louisiana’s Highway 1, isn’t a vacation mecca like its counterparts in Florida and Alabama. In some ways, it’s more important.

“Once this goes away, look at all the open water,” said Todd Folse, 51, a scientist with the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority who has spent his life hunting and fishing in the area.

As he drove along the beach to view large-scale restoration work there, he said not maintaining it would be disastrous.

“It’s not going to take long to get to the highway,” he said of the threat of erosion.

The stretch of beach and marsh known as the Caminada Headland is not just a spot to catch a tan and a few speckled trout. Restored at a cost of more than $250 million, it’s a bird haven, a boon to the ecosystem and, perhaps more relevant to many Louisianans, a protective barrier for points further inland, including oil and gas hub Port Fourchon.

032217 Caminada Headland

But there are clouds on the horizon. A large chunk of the funding used to restore the headland, located a short drive away from Grand Isle, came from money related to the 2010 BP oil spill.

That funding will soon begin to wane before disappearing entirely by 2032. At the moment, there is nothing to replace it, meaning more than half of the coastal authority’s revenue for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will soon be gone.

It’s a dilemma state officials are well aware of, but finding solutions is another matter. A delegation was in Washington last week as part of those efforts, with federal legislation being proposed to dedicate revenue from offshore wind energy to such projects as well as increase Louisiana’s share of offshore oil and gas dollars.

Even if those efforts succeed, it may not be enough, especially as costs rise and the state faces potentially larger money shortages in the years ahead. Louisiana has been able to dedicate $8.5 billion in spill proceeeds to restoration efforts, spread out over years and used for a long list of projects.

The problem may not yet be on the public’s radar. But as the state’s land loss crisis worsens and hurricanes intensify, there are arguably few issues more important for Louisiana.

“It is a big funding gap to fill,” said Charles Sutcliffe, who served as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ chief resilience officer and is now with the National Wildlife Federation. “There’s just a lot of things that need to happen and not a lot of time until 2031.”

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A family takes inn a sunny day on Caminada Bay. The restoration of the Caminada Headlands, paid in part with BP settlement funds, has resulted in the creation of dunes which support vegetation. Funding for large-scale projects of this kind is not in state budgeting at present. (Staff photo by John McCusker, The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com)

‘Really needed that larger investment’

The Caminada Headland stretches 14 miles along Elmer’s Island down to Belle Pass, where Louisiana’s fading coast meets the Gulf of Mexico.

It has seen rapid erosion and land loss, retreating about 35 feet per year over the last century, according to the CPRA. Its further disappearance would mean more saltwater intrusion eating away at the marsh behind the beach and, eventually, land loss threatening Highway 1, the only route in and out of Grand Isle.

It also serves as a buffer for storm surge rolling in toward Port Fourchon and other areas.

The restoration went in phases and was completed in 2017, using nearly 9 million cubic yards of sand. The total cost for restoring both the headland and back barrier marsh was around $265 million. More than half came from BP-related funds.

That was enough to allow for a larger-scale plan, including dredging the sediment used for restoration from an area known as Ship Shoal, 27 miles offshore. It was the first time that site, well suited for such projects, could be used.

“It would have taken a lot longer,” Katie Freer, a CPRA coastal scientist on the recent tour of the headland, said about whether the project could have been possible without BP money. “To mobilize that kind of effort, we really needed that larger investment.”

But as important as the restoration may be, it is one small patch of a far larger coastline that is fading under the tides. How to continue to salvage as much of the coast as possible as sea-level rise worsens Louisiana’s land loss and intensifying storms tear apart wetlands is becoming an increasingly urgent question.

Last week’s visit to Washington was organized by the SHORES coalition, which includes local and state leaders, industry representatives, environmentalists and others from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, according to the CPRA.

The coalition met with more than 100 different congressional offices to push legislation that would increase revenue from offshore activities, the CPRA said in a statement. One aspect of the legislation would lift the current cap on offshore oil and gas revenue distributed to Gulf Coast states, which could bring billions to Louisiana’s coastal program, the CPRA says.

“Louisiana and CPRA will continuing pursuing every possible funding source to compensate for the loss of these funds to ensure we are able to continue implementing transformational projects that restore ecosystems and protect communities,” it said, referring to the BP revenue.

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Ornithologist Jon Wiebe stands next to a stand of fencing along the coast at Caminada. The restoration of the Caminada Headlands, paid in part with BP settlement funds, has resulted in the creation of dunes which support vegetation. Funding for large-scale projects of this kind is not in state budgeting at present. (Staff photo by John McCusker, The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com)

‘It’s open water’

In recent years, coastal projects have also benefited from state surpluses, but the state may soon be facing difficult fiscal issues, particularly if a .45-cent sales tax is allowed to expire next year.

Even with that tax in place, coastal projects were granted far fewer surplus dollars this year than in the previous one -- $10 million compared to $148 million. The CPRA had requested $80 million during the recent legislative session.

Political questions are also hanging over the state’s coastal program. Gov. Jeff Landry is looking into merging the CPRA with the Department of Energy and Natural Resources – a move that coastal advocates warn could deprioritize decades of efforts to combat land loss.

More than 200 business leaders, scientists, coastal advocates and others recently signed an open letter expressing serious concerns over the Landry administration’s approach to coastal issues so far. Gordon Dove, appointed by Landry to chair the CPRA board, pledged in response that the agency will maintain its scientific approach and that its mission would not be cast aside.

Out on the beach last week, it was easy to forget about politics and funding shortages. A handful of people sunbathed or cast fishing lines into the surf. Will it all still be here 50 years from now? A century into the future?

The fight seems to grow more difficult by the day. Folse says projects like the Caminada Headland restoration are especially meaningful to him, given how much of his life has been spent in the area hunting and fishing.

But he’s noticed staggering change over the years.

“You don’t see as much marsh,” said Folse, who’s from Thibodaux but has been coming to Grand Isle since he was a kid. “Where you used to fish at one point in time, it’s open water.”

Email Mike Smith at msmith@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter, @MikeJSmith504. His work is supported with a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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