Dec 18, 2014

Wetland Foundation Report Says Private Investment Can Restore Coast

Ecosystem valuing, increased mitigation, streamlined processes & environmental exchanges needed to attract funding

wetland foundation, private sector funding, gulf coast restoration

The America’s Wetland Foundation (AWF) has released findings from its recent convening of diverse costal leaders, calling for cooperation within the science community on setting ecosystem values along the Gulf Coast to attract private sector investment in coastal restoration. Results from the meeting, held at Tabasco headquarters on Avery Island, La., revealed the need for flexibility by federal agencies to simplify procedures that slow or deter restoration of private lands in valuable estuarine areas not prioritized for early funding in the state’s coastal master plan, yet critical to transition timelines for communities and resource industries. 

Coastal experts met in the 2014 fourth quarter, as part of AWF’s America’s Energy Coast initiative and focused discussions on adaptation for Gulf Coast resiliency and sustainability. Experts from all impacted stakeholder communities explored funding mechanisms for coastal restoration on the Gulf Coast and specifically in south Louisiana, which is experiencing the greatest rate of land loss in the world.

Attendees included representatives from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Restore Council, federal and state agencies, universities and research institutions, investment banking, industry, state government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

During the course of the forum, emerging models for funding restoration were explored and consensus was reached on a number of key factors to move private investment in wetland restoration to a higher scale to meet the enormity of the challenge.

Coastal leaders also discussed the concept of transition projects, a notion that essential environmental services must be sustained as large scale projects move through planning and implementation, which can take years. One such concern was shoring up the embankments of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) where banks have been compromised and saltwater intrusion threatens freshwater marshes.

For the demonstration project that will shore up GIWW embankments, AWF partners include Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, private landowners and Martin Ecosystems of Baton Rouge. The project will seek private sector and federal agency support for restoring the embankment with recycled plastic permeable shore wrapping that will hold native grasses that can fortify the banks and keep the waterway’s footprint from expanding and moving further inland.

The findings report also focuses on market-driven approaches to sustaining the environment, including establishing an ecological marketplace of environmental assets and restoration projects, available to private investors, companies or organizations seeking a more sustainable future who can finance projects for business or community interests. Also topping the list of report recommendations were addressing uninsurability, the unfunded resiliency gap and the need for applying costs of sustaining the environment to balance sheets of private companies, assessing environmental risks to reduce casualty risks and placing a cost on the savings possible with more efficient and effective processes for restoration

Bill Golden, founder of the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure in Boston, in describing common challenges facing coastal regions, introduced the idea of an “unfunded resiliency gap", in which the cost of inaction is considered in cost-benefit equations. He noted that the insurance sector has available data for these calculations and that such a new criteria would serve to set values on ecosystem services tied directly to the reduction of the liability they provide.

Participants identified barriers to broad-scale ecosystem restoration and addressed critical issues including:

  • Need for equivalency standards among mitigation programs to increase efficiency in permitting
  • Establishing programs with exceptions that allow for varying streams of revenue from a single acre beyond the 404 permitting allowances, such as nutrient and carbon sequestration credits.
  • Removing hamstrings that deter broad restoration efforts like requirement of containment zones within the structure of large-scale project sites where environmental assets will not be impacted.
  • Changing the culture around sustainability to address the lingering attitude that profitability and a sustainable environment cannot coexist. This often leads to limitations on what is allowable under existing frameworks and guidelines.
  • Resistance by some to allow NRDA fines to be used for mitigation credits on a larger scale where private investments can fund programs quickly and effectively.
  • Hesitancy of landowners to partner in restoration projects because of history of experiences with the permitting process that discourages their participation.
  • Need for transition projects to ‘stop the bleeding’ while waiting for large-scale restoration to come on line; programs need allowances and exclusions from certain restrictions if long-term benefits of a project outweigh short-term impacts.
  • Need to leverage trading opportunities by establishing values of environmental attributes, possibly using de facto valuations like insurability in monetization.