- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

THIBODAUX, La. (AP) - The four candidates in the race to become the next Louisiana governor each said fixing Louisiana’s dire coastal land loss will require moving ahead with multibillion-dollar plans - opposed by many fishermen - to divert Mississippi River water into disappearing estuaries.

The three Republicans and lone Democrat met Tuesday afternoon at a forum at Nicholls State University to discuss what they would do as governor to repair Louisiana’s eroding coast. About 1,900 square miles of coast have eroded into the Gulf of Mexico since the 1930s.

The candidates largely voiced similar approaches on what they see as the steps necessary to take. Each one backed a $50 billion, 50-year master plan devised by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to slow land loss by diverting the Mississippi River’s mud and water into injured estuaries. The idea is to restore the river’s delta-building capacity. The river has been constrained by levees.

The Republican candidates are U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. The Democrat is state Rep. John Bel Edwards. The primary election is Oct. 24.

Fishermen oppose river diversions because they would alter water conditions and likely make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to harvest shrimp, crabs and oysters where freshwater is flushed into estuaries.

“If we don’t do something, I believe we risk the overall collapse,” Angelle said in backing diversions.

“Simply put, diversions are the backbone” to coastal restoration, Edwards said. But he said projects need to be weighed against socio-economic factors.

Vitter said diversions are “going to be the most difficult, the most controversial” aspects of the restoration plan. He added: “The possible negative impacts are very real.” He added that “you have to measure and tweak (projects) as you go along.”

All these plans rely on an infusion of billions of dollars from a legal settlement the state expects to get from BP PLC over its catastrophic 2010 oil spill in the Gulf. They also depend on gaining a greater share of money from offshore drilling in federal waters in the Gulf.

But even that infusion of funds is not expected to be enough to do all the work considered necessary.

The four candidates did not propose large-scale new mechanisms for funding the enterprise, even as candidates predicted the eventual cost of coastal restoration would reach $100 billion.

Edwards said he would seek to get the federal government to do more to fix Louisiana’s problems. “This is a national priority,” he said.

Dardenne too said he would campaign for more federal funding. “We need the assistance of America to make sure this program works,” he said. “Everybody needs to know this is America’s wetlands.”

Vitter said he would seek to engage private companies, such as oil and gas companies, in spending more on the coast. Edwards and Dardenne offered similar ideas. Vitter also said he would work with other Gulf states to expand offshore drilling to bring in more funds.

Angelle said he would make it a felony for any government official to misuse money designed to go into coastal restoration. He added that he would make sure that funds meant for coastal restoration are not diverted to other purposes. “I would not allow a single penny of our coastal funds to go to any other project,” he said.

Dealing with Louisiana’s coastal crisis is considered one of the state’s most complicated and crucial problems.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck 10 years ago this August, exposed the state’s extreme vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding. Besides hurricanes, the coast is riddled with other problems, from the damages caused by oil and gas drilling and rising sea levels, to the often-competing needs of fishermen, towns, industry and nature.

The forum, though, sidestepped many of those contentious issues.

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