Louisiana obstacle course: Ambitious plan to use the river to build land faces challenges

Louisiana obstacle course: Ambitious plan to use the river to build land faces challenges

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - On the east bank of the Mississippi, 40 miles down river from New Orleans, the river still builds land.

Natural crevasses - cuts in the river bank - spill fresh water and sediment into the nearby marsh in a miniature version of how the great river built the South Louisiana delta.

Rich, chocolate-colored Mississippi mud turns open water into terra firma.

"It continuously grows every year as long as they've got a canal feeding it from the river," said Ryan Lambert, a charter boat captain and advocate of river diversions.

Lambert has been watching the growth since 2006, when the state lent nature a helping hand.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries installed terraces in Bay Denesse, narrow islands that form a maze and help capture this other black gold.

The project cost just $1.2 million, or pennies by coastal restoration standards, and has built an estimated 300 acres of new land.

"All this is new land," said Lambert, who estimates the project has created 1,000 acres of habitat for ducks and other bird species.

Nearby, hundreds of white pelicans perch themselves near an old navigation marker that is now landlocked.

Lambert sees it as incontrovertible evidence of the river's land-building power.

The state's Coastal Master Plan envisions Bay Denesse on a much larger scale, with a series of giant structures and canals to feed massive amounts of fresh water and sediment into the marsh.

"There's never been any uncertainty about whether the Mississippi River can build land," said David Muth, Louisiana State Director of the National Wildlife Federation's Louisiana Coastal Campaign. "That's a no-brainer," Muth said. "We're standing on it."

The prospect of massive quantities of polluted, fresh water pouring into nearby fisheries scares the daylights out of other interests.

In Shell Beach, Robby Campo blames existing smaller diversions for spoiling a nearby oyster lease.

"The oyster productivity in Black Bay is zero," Campo said of an area that once produced thousands of sacks of oysters. "You go over there, I don't know if it's 10 sacks a day."

He describes areas once rich in oysters as practically dead zones today.

"It makes your lease close in here non-productive, totally non-productive."

Diversions now dominate the discussion over how to rescue coastal Louisiana, or whether it can be done.

"Right now, the public seed beds in Breton Sound were wiped out during the oil spill because they ran the Caenarvon Diversion so hard for four months," said George Ricks, a leader in an anti-diversion group called The Save Louisiana Coalition.

Supporters of diversions concede there will be pain, but argue nature never intended for salt water species to thrive in many of the places where they now exist.

"People joke, but the reality is you're looking at beachfront property in Baton Rouge if that loss continues," said Jerome Zeringue, former chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Zeringue argues the alternative is the complete collapse of the system that supports the seafood industry.

"The irony is the fact that the fishermen often point (out) that the diversions will destroy fisheries," Zeringue said. "The fisheries are tied to the habitat itself."

Some powerful forces have questions about the diversions.

"It's a very romantic notion that is not the cure to our problems," said former Army Corps of Engineers Brigadier General Duke Deluca in an interview with FOX 8 before his retirement last year.

Deluca believes the issue is largely misunderstood when it comes to how quickly diversions would work, likening the science, engineering and budget challenges to a moon shot.

"There is a sort of a notion in popular understanding that the river built these deltas, and if we just let it do what it wants to do, it will sustain these deltas," Deluca said. "That is not true."

Like the Apollo program of the 1960's, which took astronauts to the moon, Louisiana must overcome huge engineering challenges and master untested science.

"The cost is probably similar to a moon shot, maybe a mars shot," said Alex McCorquodale, a UNO professor who is using three-dimensional computer modeling to study how much sediment remains in the river and how much can be extracted from diversions.

The master plan of 2012 included a series of diversions, some shooting massive amounts of river water into the marsh.

The Mid-Barataria Diversion on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish near Myrtle Grove was envisioned at 250,000 cubic feet per second, or approaching the scale of the Bonnet Carre Spillway near Norco.

"If we take 250,000 in the upper part of the system, it's not going to be available in the lower part," McCorquodale said, "and we may see land loss in the lower part that offset some of the gain in the actual diversion."

State and federal researchers involved in a comprehensive study of the river are finding such massive diversions may not be necessary. It might be possible to build smaller diversions, one-fourth or one-eighth the size, and still achieve land-building results.

Another potential obstacle is the river itself, no longer as muddy as its reputation.

One LSU study found the river now carries roughly half its historic sediment load as farmers employ better techniques to prevent erosion and silt gets trapped behind countless locks and dams on the various tributaries of the Mississippi.

"If there isn't as much sediment as there used to be, I don't understand how that's an argument for not using what's there," Muth said.

Zeringue, who stepped down recently as CPRA Chairman, points out that Louisiana today captures only about 1 percent of the sediment in the river.

"If we can utilized 50 percent of what's there in the river now, we can achieve the land-building goals we've identified in the Master Plan," Zeringue said.

Both sides point to the Wax Lake Outlet south of Morgan City, where an accidental delta of 20,000 to 30,000 acres sprouted since the Corps dug a canal from the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Critics suggest Wax Lake, designed as a flood-control project for Morgan City, effectively takes 10 percent of the river's flow to build a relatively small amount of land.

"If you utilize 100 percent of the river flow, which you can't do, you still wouldn't get the land that we need," Ricks said.

Disciples of diversions note Wax Lake emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, directly into five or eight feet of water.

Diversions would flow into shallow bays that not long ago were land.

However, fishermen are hardly the only ones raising questions about sticking that many big straws into the river.

Top Corps officials have occasionally raised concerns about the effects on navigation.

"The permitting process is going to be problematic with the Corps," Ricks said.

The Save Louisiana Coalition argues for a greater emphasis on dredging, delivering land by pipe instantly.

"I want to see us move some mud around, absolutely," Robby Campo said. "We can't wait for 100 years."

While dredging accounts for about three times in the budget in the master plan as diversions, diversion supporters argue the challenge also involves changing the hydrology.

Unless the state finds a means of pushing back the rising tide of salt water, they argue dredging is a fool's errand involving the building of multi-million dollar islands and marshy areas that will merely erode again.

"The future is the Gulf of Mexico lapping against the levee at New Orleans," Muth said. "We have to change it. Running dredges isn't going to accomplish that."

Professor McCorquodale sees the potential to put Louisiana on the technological map, much as The Netherlands came to specialize in flood control following the great flood of 1953 there.

"They turned that disaster into something very positive," McCorquodale said, "and they're world renowned now for their engineering."

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