Cattle rancher crusades to save coastal project - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Cattle rancher crusades to save coastal project

Earl Armstrong stands in 9 inches of water where there had been 4-5 ft. in the West Bay Diversion (John Snell) Earl Armstrong stands in 9 inches of water where there had been 4-5 ft. in the West Bay Diversion (John Snell)

Venice, La. — Earl Armstrong walks through a one-year-old forest not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River, showing off some of the newest land in Louisiana.

"Every year, you see it doing a little better," said Armstrong, surveying a quarter-mile long island and its twin a few hundred feet to the north.

A decade ago, contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a hole in the river levee in a pilot project aimed at harnessing the power of the river to build several thousand acres of marsh. The project, once deemed a failure, was slated for closure by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration task force of state and federal agencies (CWPPRA).

For several years, the mighty river ran wild, barreling through the cut, gouging out the water bottom and blasting away everything in its path. 

While no land got built, Armstrong never stopped believing in the West Bay Diversion.  To close the project, Armstrong argued, "would be the biggest mistake they ever made."

While the experts chalked West Bay up to a "learning experience," Armstrong argued for the project's continuation.  "It was working. It just needed help," he said.

Armstrong, a cattle rancher who grew up along the river, had heard stories in his youth about the land-building power of the Mississippi.

In 2009, the Corps put in a sort of backstop, an artificial island a couple miles away that slowed the flow of river water through the levee cut.

"That's when we started seeing sandbars," Armstrong said. "Within one year, sandbars started popping up.

When virtually everyone else had given up on West Bay, Armstrong may have been the only person who consistently kept track of what was happening below the surface of the water.

He would "come out here and ride around" in his air boat, stabbing at the water bottom with a wooden stick.  Over time, five feet of water became four feet, then three feet, and suddenly inches.

"There was one heck of a change right here where we're standing," said Armstrong, recalling the day when he rode into the bay at low tide.  Off in the distance, he saw birds propped on a sand bar "and I'd like to break my neck getting over here to take a look."

Off he went to a task force meeting — just a citizen confronting the experts — to tell them of the changes he wa s witnessing.  "When I did go, people really listened. You can tell when people are listening to what you have to say," Armstrong told us.

Then, the great flood of 2011 belched a giant plug of river mud into West Bay.  Islands started popping to the surface.

"He called me and said, ‘you're not going to believe what's happening,'" said Albertine Kimble of the Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Management Office.  "Seeing is believing and that's why we had to get everybody else down here to see it."

In October 2011, in a pivotal field trip, staff members from the various federal agencies represented on the CWPPRA task force saw and believed.

"Once we set it up, Mother Nature takes over," said Karen McCormick of the Environmental Protection Agency after viewing new islands along with acres and acres of land rising just below the surface of the water.

Yet a giant cloud still hung over West Bay.  Under the original deal with shipping interests, the project was responsible for covering the costs of any navigation issues.

A study by the Corps partly blamed the diversion for altering the river flow and causing silt to pile into a ship anchorage.  Dredging the anchorage would cost tens of millions of dollars over the 20-year project life, draining money for other coastal projects.

In a compromise earlier this month, the task force agreed to pay for one more round of dredging the anchorage while keeping West Bay alive.

"I was very happy," Kimble said. "It brought tears to my eyes. Long live Plaquemines Parish and West Bay Diversion."

When prompted, Armstrong stops short of claiming to have saved West Bay, but acknowledges "I rattled a lot of cages."

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