May 17, 2017 11:52 AM

The CPRA's plan carries a $50 billion price tag over 50 years. The state can only count on about $19 billion right now.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Senate will consider action on the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority's 2017 Coastal Master Plan when it convenes this afternoon. The master plan constitutes the state's blueprint for saving Louisiana's coast over the next 50 years.

Sen. Blade Morrish of Jennings is the author of SCR1 which provides Senate approval for the plan and SR1 which is the one-year work plan for the CPRA. Both resolutions have been made Special Orders of the Day for the Senate.

Both resolutions are expected to win approval without much of a fight.

The Master Plan requires a certain amount of mental elasticity of legislators. As SCR1 explains, the plan is based on the best science available, including climate science from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has named Grand Isle as the place in the United States facing the greatest threat of relative sea level rise in the country. Relative sea level rise is a combination of rising sea levels and sinking land. Grand Isle faces both forces.

The problem for most legislators is that they are, at best, climate change skeptics. Sen. Norby Chabert of Houma is a prime example. At a meeting of his Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on the plan last week, Chabert teared up when talking about the fight to save his native Terrebonne Parish from storm surge and coastal wetlands loss.

There is no denying the impact of coastal wetlands loss across the state's 20 parishes in the Coastal Management Zone. On the other hand, what science is saying about that wetlands loss is that it is being driven by a combination of factors — erecting levees along the Mississippi River, climate change and by activities in and along the coast. Climate change is, according to science, being driven in some significant measure by the burning of fossil fuels. There is evidence that some significant portion of Louisiana's coastal wetlands loss is related to oil and gas exploration and production activities in and through the wetlands.

Does approval of SCR1 and the Coastal Master Plan, then, constitute at least an indirect endorsement of the climate science behind it?

Two things are certain: The first is that the $50 billion price tag associated with the Master Plan is not the true cost of implementing it. The second is that the state does not have access to all the money it will need to implement the plan at this point.

Mark Davis of Tulane's Institute for Water Resources Law and Policy produced a 2015 report in which he examined the 2012 Coastal Master Plan and found the actual cost to be closer to $91 billion rather than the $50 billion estimated by the CPRA.

"There were costs that were not figured into the plan — things like urban water issues, levee maintenance, channel and bank maintenance," Davis tells The Independent. "There were other elements of it that include costs that will have to be borne by local governments on things like mitigation that we're not sure that they have the means to provide."

Add to that list inflation over the 50-year life of the plan and Davis now says the total cost of the 2012 plan would have been "well over $100 billion."

In April testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Coastal Restoration and Flood Control, CPRA head Johnny Bradberry explained that the state could only count on about $19 billion in funding for the $50 billion plan, assuming that is an accurate estimate of the cost.

It likely is not because when the CPRA met the day after that committee met, it added four new projects to the Master Plan without raising the total cost estimate of the plan.

Davis has not done the same kind of cost analysis of the 2017 version of the Master Plan, but in January the institute issued what it labeled the "Third in an occasional series" of reports looking at funding options that the state and local governments need to explore if more than a small portion of the plan is to be implemented and a similar small portion of the coast will be saved.

Davis co-authored the report with N. Dean Boyer, a senior research fellow at the institute which Davis leads. The 49-page, heavily footnoted report titled Financing the Future III takes an extensive look at potential funding sources that state and local governments will need to consider going forward.

"No one expects you to have all the money you need for a project of this size at the time that your start," Davis tells The Independent. "But, the real challenge is to have the dollars you need when you need them at the time and place that you need them."

Davis says there might be federal sources of funding that the state could tap, but notes that federal dollars usually bring with them a requirement of a local or state match that could be as high as 35 percent. "We're not sure local governments have the means to come up with that share even if they could identify the federal source," Davis says, adding that "the federal government can't fund all that we need funded."

He notes that the state's current fiscal condition also limits options. "We're about at the end of our rope of what we can do with sales taxes. We're going to have to examine other options," Davis says. Those could include things such as creating a carbon bank to trade carbon credits, taxing certain industries and even imposing fees on water extraction. Davis is a leader of the Louisiana Law Institute's team working on a state water code.

Davis declares that the hard reality of our disappearing coast and our need to respond are going to drive hard choices.

"It's no longer a question of what you want to do and when, but what you need to in order to survive," Davis says.

The Senate was scheduled to convene at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

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