Baton Rouge — House Bill 1135 by state Rep. Karen St. Germain of Pierre Part and 27 coauthors proposes to restructure the state’s Atchafalaya Basin Program within the Department of Natural Resources and refocus it on improving water quality and related public recreational opportunities in America’s largest and most productive river basin swamp.
The bill has passed the House and now awaits debate by the full Senate after getting the approval of the Senate Finance Committee earlier in the week.
According to St. Germain, the value of the Atchafalaya Basin is well known by the thousands of Louisianans who fish, boat, paddle, bird, hunt, frog, crawfish and otherwise enjoy the natural wonder that lies between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, New Iberia and Napoleonville. Estimates of economic impact supported by the Basin run to nearly a half billion dollars annually in fisheries, recreation and tourism.
HB 1135 would overhaul ABP operating procedures and decision-making processes, adjust criteria for projects, and require the development of an annual plan that must be approved by the Legislature, similar to the process for the states plan for coastal protection and restoration. The bill would give specific executive authorities to the Atchafalaya Basin Promotion and Research Board, including the development of the annual plan, create a technical advisory group chaired by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to advise the board, and require review of the plan by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to assure consistency with the state’s master plan for coastal protection and restoration. In each step of the process, public review and input is prominent.
A major feature of the bill is the establishment of the Atchafalaya Basin Conservation Fund. As originally conceived, the Fund would receive 50 percent of the mineral revenues generated from state lands and water bottoms in the Atchafalaya Basin, capped at $10 million per year, such funds to be used for projects in the Atchafalaya Basin annual plan, master plan or as a match for the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System, Louisiana Project of the Corps of Engineers. The bill directs 75 percent of monies allocated from the fund in any one fiscal year to water management, water quality or (public) access projects with the remaining 25 percent available to complete ongoing projects and projects that are in accordance with the mission statement of the master plan for the Atchafalaya Basin adopted by the Legislature in 1999.
The mineral revenue dedication idea hit a bump a few weeks ago when Governor Jindal announced that he was generally opposed to dedicating additional state revenues. The dedication was deleted by amendment on the House floor. The fund would still be available to receive money from other sources, including direct appropriations.
The swamp faces significant challenges, primary among them siltation which encourages stagnation and low oxygen conditions, degrading water quality and fish habitat.
A major goal of the Atchafalaya Basin Program from its inception has been to support projects to improve water quality by re-plumbing and managing the flow of water through the swamp. The stable funding envisioned by HB 1135 is critical to near and long-term planning and would accelerate design and implementation of water management work.
Another consideration for the state is the potential loss of revenue from minerals as land accretes and waterbottoms fill, triggering a transfer of ownership of the subsurface minerals from the state to the private riparian owner. One effect of water management would be to keep Basin waters open and state ownership of minerals below them. Currently, state lands and waterbottoms in the Atchafalaya Basin are generating over $50 million annually in mineral revenue to the state.
The concept of investing the wealth generated from the depletion of nonrenewable natural resources in the restoration, enhancement, conservation and management of renewable natural resources like the fish, wildlife, land and water resources of the Atchafalaya Basin is a fundamental concept of wise resource stewardship, and widely embraced by citizens across the Sportsman’s Paradise.
Randy Lanctot is executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.