LaPolitics Newsmaker: Garret Graves

Garret Graves is chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and serves as the top coastal advisor to Gov. Bobby Jindal. Trusted by lawmakers, Graves is known for his fast manner of speech, like his boss, and his institutional knowledge of coastal issues. Whenever there's a national media story produced about Louisiana's coast, you can expect to see his name somewhere in the copy.

Prior to being hired by Jindal, Graves served as an advisor to former U.S. Sen. John Breaux and former Congressman Billy Tauzin. He also worked for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and as the staff director for the U.S. Senate's Climate Change and Impacts Subcommittee. Following the 2010 BP oil spill, Graves was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.

LaPolitics: What’s the biggest issue the CPRA wants to tackle during the 2014 regular session?

Graves: Some of the things we’re looking at is how to do a better job partnering with landowners and industry to figure out how to do some of these projects. Are there incentives, are there tax incentives or partnership incentives, for folks that want to move forward with projects on their land instead of waiting for funding from the state? And it’s no secret that we’re looking to form a more complementary relationship with the (Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.)

Over the past several years we’ve seen bits and pieces of other agencies, like DNR and DOTD, get taken in by the CPRA. Are we likely to see more of these consolidations happen in the future?

I can’t speak for the Legislature, but let me say this: one of the reasons why I think we’ve made so much progress over the last six years is that our mission is crystal clear and it’s laser focused. We can’t get caught up in other departments’ missions. We need to be careful about hanging more ornaments on this Christmas tree.

Do the lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes against oil and gas companies give the state a bargaining chip when negotiating with the companies on other issues?

No. We have a very cooperative relationship with oil and gas companies. Those are the folks we go to when we need to do projects next to their property, and 99.9 percent of the time, they donate to us the right of way on that property or construction easement. I don’t see us in a position where we need leverage right now. That being said, if it’s determined ultimately that folks didn’t comply with permit conditions, then those permits need to be enforced. We’re not now or ever saying that they should be allowed to operate outside of regulatory compliance. I think the first step is, if it is determined there are permits out of compliance, you need to inform the responsible party and you need to give them an opportunity to resolve this. If they then don’t come into compliance, you need to look at what your other enforcement options are and perhaps use a stick approach.

One criticism of the lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East is that it operates outside of the Master Plan for the coast. But the administration hasn’t said the same about the parishes’ suits. Why?

I think it would be hard to make a determination if it were compliant or noncompliant until we got to the judgement phase, and found out what to do with the money. Everything creating coastal loss in Louisiana, whether it is subsidence, whether it is sea level rise, or it is river management practices of the Corps of Engineers, whether it is historic timber harvesting, whether it is actually all the recreational boaters creating wave energy in South Louisiana, spreading salt water and bringing the marsh down or whether it’s the oil spill, all of those things are on our radar. So years ago, when we established CPRA, we sat down and looked at these things, and started developing plans for all of them. When you look across the spectrum, the attribution of coastal land loss over the last 80 years, the largest single component without question, is the Army Corps of Engineers’ river management, the leveeing of the rivers. It is not just historic loss, it is perspective loss. Our guys have estimated that that loss is probably valued at $2 billion a year. Let’s say that the flood authority is wildly successful. After the contingency fee, it’ll provide us with roughly enough cash to cover less than four years of damage that the Corps is doing.

Do you think the new members on the flood protection board will make any difference on its suit?

It’s only three of the nine members. It’s likely going to be either the court or the Legislature that puts us back in the right direction.

What does all of this litigation mean for the state?

Gov. (Mike) Foster worked really hard to raise the coastal issue, and so did Gov. (Kathleen) Blanco. But I think if you use any metric, if you look at the progress under Gov. (Bobby) Jindal and this Legislature, no one else has done so much to restore the coast. Maybe look instead at what the cases are about and look instead into what we’re doing, what are we doing about oil and gas, what are we doing about unsustainable river management practices?

When you talk about “unsustainable river management practices,” what do you mean?

Before levees were on the river, our state was growing three-quarters of a square mile per year. All of the sediment and freshwater would rise over the riverbanks and deposit land. When the levees were put there, it obstructed the natural deltaic process that built our state. If you or I built that, we’d have to mitigate the damages. One way is to capture the sediment in the river and pump it over, and mimic the process that way. Another is to reconnect the river with the adjacent coastal area, restore those historic distributaries of the Mississippi River, as opposed to cutting them off. We have too many people that live down here now, and we recognize that. We’re not sending water through people’s homes. Reconnecting the river is what diversions are designed to do.

There are some academics that think, to put it simply, diversions would bring too much nutrients in, weaken the root structure of the marsh, and result in more land loss.

Let’s talk about that. The water quality issue is an important one. You have more nutrients in the river today than you had historically. We’ll release a draft of our Nutrient Management Strategy in either December or January. Our new science shows that we can build what we call “enhancements” in our diversions where if you plant the right kind of vegetation, and if you run the water across it at the right velocities, you can get a net reduction of nutrients in the state. We’re also working with farmers upriver to limit the amount of nutrients that enter the system. You’ll have cleaner more dispersed water following through Louisiana—and that will absolutely result in a smaller dead zone.

Do lawmakers consult you when they try to pull accounting tricks with the Coastal Restoration Fund, like they attempted last session, to move one-time funds into the account to replace recurring funds?

There have been instances in the past when folks thought it would be a good idea to take our money, meaning a net reduction in coastal dollars, and I have fought that every single time it’s happened. The governor has been great. I have not been consulted every time it’s been proposed, but we’ve injected ourselves into the conversation. If they took money out of our account, they put the same amount of money back in.

Would you describe your desk as neat, messy or somewhere in between?

One of my old bosses, Sen. Ted Stevens, had a sign on his desk that said, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is an empty desk a sign of?” My organizational style is probably a little different than most people, but I can always find a piece of paper on my desk.

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