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Coastal conservation group argues for a Texas comprehensive plan

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Brad Doherty

Traffic moved over the Queen Isabella Bridge that spans the Laguna Madre from Port Isabel, to South Padre Island Wednesday, April 30,2014. America's Wetland Foundation has taken steps to implement a comprhensive coastal conservation/protection plan for the Texas gulf coast. (AP Photo/The Brownsville Herald, Brad Doherty)

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In 2001, former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster called for creation of an organization whose goal was to increase awareness about severe land loss threatening the state’s coast and how it affected not only Louisiana but the nation as a whole.

Foster’s initiative was based on a comprehensive study of the Bayou State’s disappearing coast. The result was the America’s WETLAND Foundation, founded in 2002. Non-governmental groups represented by the Environmental Defense Fund and industry represented by the president of Shell Oil joined Foster in announcing the “Campaign to Save America’s WETLAND.”

AWF’s efforts led to a comprehensive coastal restoration and protection plan to deal with current and future threats. The “protection” label was added after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Texas has no such plan for its 367 miles of coastline, though AWF managing director Val Marmillion said his organization aims to help change that. He argued that Texas can’t afford to be without a coastal plan in the face of coastal erosion, growing coastal populations, rising sea levels and the increased likelihood of catastrophic storm damage as a result.

“This brings the velocity of water closer to your population center,” he said. “Even a more moderate storm like Katrina, if water hangs around long enough it has the potential to do a lot of damage.”

AWF already has a relationship with the state: The organization’s “America’s Energy Coast” initiative in 2005 was a Gulf-wide project that included leadership forums in South Padre Island, Corpus Christi, Galveston and Houston focusing on coastal resiliency.

The “blue ribbon” forums were chaired by Brownsville native and former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Buddy Garcia, and attracted the likes of General Land Office Commissioner Jim Patterson.

Marmillion said Patterson’s staff asked AFW “to get more involved in Texas.”

“We said we can invest some of our foundation’s support there and begin to build an effort like we did in Louisiana,” Marmillion said.

The first step was a random sample of 689 Texas residents, including 200 coastal residents, commissioned by AWF in December. The margin of error for the survey, conducted by The Kitchens Group, was 4.4 percent with a 95 percent confidence level.

The survey was revealing, Marmillion said, in that 62 percent of respondents characterized Texas as a “state with a coast” versus 38 percent who considered it a “coastal state.” Of the coastal residents polled, the split was 51 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

“The one thing that troubles everyone is most Texans don’t see themselves as a coastal state,” Marmillion said. “Even Houston doesn’t itself see as a coastal city. They see themselves as an industrial city. That’s dangerous in a way because then people don’t value their assets and they don’t prepare for some of the changes that are coming to the coast.”

He said a shift in perception is necessary for Texas to take the steps necessary to prepare its coast. AWF’s Louisiana campaign over a five-year period led to a massive increase in the number of residents statewide who viewed coastal restoration and protection as the “issue of their lifetime,” Marmillion said.

Influenced by such widespread support, the Louisiana Legislature by an 81 percent margin passed three constitutional amendments providing funding and support for coastal restoration.

“Then the Legislature kicked into gear and unanimously passed a coastal master plan,” Marmillion said.

AWF’s job in Louisiana was made somewhat easier by a connection, based on the energy industry, which already existed between the state’s inland and coastal parishes.

Marmillion thinks Texas will be a little more challenging. A symptom of the state’s disconnect from its coast, he noted, is the ongoing legislative fight over whether all Texans or just coastal residents should have to pay in the event of catastrophic storm damage.

The issue is at the center of the debate over the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association’s claims-funding structure.

Former TCEQ Commissioner Garcia said placing all the burden on coastal residents while disregarding the coast’s contributions to the state is “somewhat shortsighted” and unsustainable in the long run.

“Since no inventory of coastal assets has really been used to compare against the risks, I am not sure this accomplishes much but passing the focus to disaster recovery instead of prevention and smart development,” he said.

Garcia said Texas is more geared toward reacting to calamities rather than planning proactively, and that a full assessment and discussion of the coast is “long overdue.”

Marmillion thinks attitudes will change as more Texans come to realize that the state’s coastal assets — ports and the agricultural and oil and gas industries they support, for instance — are key to the state’s economic strength. AWF’s theme for the current campaign is “Strong Coast, Strong Texas.”

“Either you’re a state or you’re not a state,” he said. “At the end of the day, Texas ... has a very proud tradition of being strong for Texas. If you’re going to be doing a carve-out of the coast it’s not going to work. What if the coast carved out their economy? What would that do to the economy of the rest of the state?”

For a clear idea of the threat the Gulf coast faces in the near future, Marmillion pointed to a $4.2 million study released by the Entergy Corporation in 2011.The study, “Building a Resilient Energy Coast,” aims to provide a framework and “fact base” quantifying climate risks to the coast so decision makers have the data necessary to pursue “economically sensible” approaches for addressing the risk.

The study concludes that the coast is already vulnerable to growing environmental risks and predicts that cumulative losses will total more than $350 billion by 2030, driven by increased development along the coast and coastal subsidence — land loss.

The study concludes that the Gulf coast “faces significant risk from climate change” in the form of increased threat from hurricanes. Marmillion said future hurricanes won’t necessarily be more powerful, but that the impact could be greater.

Texas has taken the first steps toward promoting coastal resiliency with a report from the General Land Office, “The Texas Coast: Shoring Up Our Future,” which aims to highlight the coast’s value and vulnerabilities.

“That’s how we started in Louisiana,” Marmillion said.

Some good news is that, according to the AWF survey of Texas residents, 86 percent of those polled equated a healthy coastal environment with a strong economy. In Louisiana, it’s 91 percent.

Another compelling financial reason to have a coastal plan has to do with federal grants — more likely to flow to states such as Louisiana that have made progress in prioritizing projects, he said.

“Because Louisiana has one, it has given them many opportunities with the federal government that they otherwise would not have enjoyed,” Marmillion said. “Texas is without that right now.”

The lack of a plan is the reason Texas largely missed out on BP settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he said.

“If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan,” Marmillion said. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

He said the state’s elected leaders and business interests need to be fully onboard with the coastal conservation and protection effort.

“We encourage the energy industry to get much more involved and to give a lot more to this because in fact it is good business for them,” Marmillion said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

5 images

Brad Doherty

Traffic moved over the Queen Isabella Bridge that spans the Laguna Madre from Port Isabel, to South Padre Island Wednesday, April 30,2014. America's Wetland Foundation has taken steps to implement a comprhensive coastal conservation/protection plan for the Texas gulf coast. (AP Photo/The Brownsville Herald, Brad Doherty)

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