Mud Wrestling: As BP money flows, a bitter fight over Louisiana coast will escalate

Mud Wrestling: as BP money flows, a bitter fight over Louisiana coast will escalate

PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - The power of the Mississippi River is on display on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, where the river plowed through its banks.

At a spot in the Bohemia Spillway, where there is no levee, the Mississippi knocked out a road, looped around an old, abandoned control structure and reconnected with a man-made channel.

"They want to build land, and I understand that," said Don Beshel, a former Plaquemines Parish Councilman and operator of a nearby marina.  However, Beshel argues, "It's not going to do that. You're losing more than you're gaining."

Beshel, like many others connected to the commercial seafood industry, argues an uncontrolled amount of fresh water damages the ecosystem and nearby oyster leases.

Environmentalists see this place, which they nicknamed "Mardi Gras Pass" as a potential river diversion, practically for free.  Opponents prefer to call it "Mardi Gras Cut," illustrating the deep divide over how to protect Louisiana's marshes, swamps and ridges.

However, the amount of water flowing into the marsh could be just a fraction of what the state plans at four spots on the Mississippi where it is actively studying the idea of locating diversions to mimic nature's sediment-delivering powers.

"As laudable as the goal is, saving our coast, when you're destroying people's careers, when you're changing communities, there's always going to be a lot of push back," said FOX 8 political analyst Mike Sherman.

The BP oil settlement, Sherman notes, with several billion dollars for Louisiana moves the issue to the forefront.

No longer elaborate blueprints, some of the state diversion projects may finally be funded soon.

"This clearly pits the state's strategy for coastal restoration against the livelihoods of some of the citizens along the coast," Sherman said.  "This is a battle of competing interests at the highest degree."

About 6,000 years ago, geologists tell us the land New Orleans sits on today didn't exist.

The mighty river river changed course and over the next couple thousand years, forming what we call East Jefferson as the river delta.  Land eventually extended all the way to the Chandeleur Islands in extreme eastern St. Bernard Parish.

As this battle of land and sea played out over the centuries, the river shifted course again roughly two thousand years ago, building the areas around Houma and Thibodaux while St. Bernard partly retreated.

Then, another dramatic course change occurred one thousand years ago when the river found another route to the Gulf of Mexico.

It dumped sand and dirt from spring rains to build what we now call Plaquemines Parish.

The debate over whether that is feasible, from an engineering or economic standpoint, bitterly divides activists and some of those with the most at stake.

Ryan Lambert, a charter boat captain in Plaquemines Parish and a vocal supporter of diversions, points to natural crevasses farther down river.

He argues the surrounding marsh, fed with fresh water and sediment, is among the healthiest in south Louisiana.

"It continuously grows every year as long as they've got a canal feeding it from the river," Lambert told FOX 8 during a trip to the site last January.

However, many other charter captains and oyster growers remain skeptical about what they view as untested theory, a sort of Hail Mary science.

"They see that they can't make a living anymore and we live on a small strip of land," Beshel said.

Sherman believes critics of diversions will need "to build a much larger coalition than what they've got right now" to derail the plans.

He notes, however, that the next key player in the debate is likely to be the Governor elected this fall.

The four major candidates for governor, David Vitter, Scott Angelle, John Bel Edwards and Jay Dardenne, are scheduled to debate coastal issues in a forum Aug. 18 at Nichols State University.

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.