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Bill Boosts Atchafalaya Basin Program

July 9, 2008 12:00 AM

House Bill 1135 by State Representative Karen St. Germain of Pierre Part and 27 coauthors restructures the state's Atchafalaya Basin Program (ABP) within the Department of Natural Resources and refocuses it on improving water quality and related public recreational opportunities in America's largest and most productive river basin swamp.  The bill was signed into law by Governor Jindal as Act 606 of the 2008 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature. 

Rep. Karen St. Germain

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 overhauls ABP operating procedures and decision-making processes, adjusts criteria for projects, and requires the development of an annual plan that must be approved by the Legislature, similar to the process for the state's plan for coastal protection and restoration.  The bill gives specific executive authorities to the Atchafalaya Basin Promotion and Research Board (ABPRB), including the development of the annual plan, creates a technical advisory group chaired by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries to advise the APPRB, and requires 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 Act is the establishment of the Atchafalaya Basin Conservation Fund.  As originally conceived, the Fund would receive 50% 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.  It directs 75% of monies allocated from the fund in any one fiscal year to water management, water quality or (public) access projects with the remaining 25% 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 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.

Randy Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, one of the several organizations that supported the bill, said that the swamp faces significant challenges.  Primary among them is 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 as originally introduced is critical to near and long-term planning and would accelerate design and implementation of water management work," Lanctot said.

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.

Atchafalaya Basin-UGRF at sunrise

Upper Grand River Flats Sunrise- Atchafalaya Basin

"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," Lanctot said.  "We urge the Louisiana Senate to reconsider the funding question when the bill comes to the floor."

The Senate did just that by adopting an amendment, not to HB 1135 which passed the full Senate in the same posture as it was sent over by the House, but to HB 420, a constitutional amendment proposing to increase the share of state revenue each parish receives from the severance of oil and gas produced within the parish.  The Atchafalaya funding provision was added and it will be Proposition # 4 on the November 4th general election ballot for Louisiana voters to decide.   

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