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Scientists: Saving the coast does not necessarily mean destroying fisheries

Alligators gather in the Caernarvon fresh water diversion project near the St. Bernard-Plaquemines Parish line (John Snell) Alligators gather in the Caernarvon fresh water diversion project near the St. Bernard-Plaquemines Parish line (John Snell)
(WVUE) -

George Ricks represents one of the great ironies in the debate over how to restore and protect parts of Louisiana’s rapidly-vanishing coast.

Like many of those who depend most on Louisiana’s estuaries, the charter boat captain is deeply skeptical of the state’s plans to build massive structures and deliver Mississippi River sediment into the marsh with the aim of building land.

“They're going to turn both of the estuaries, Barataria and Breton, totally fresh from February to July,” said Ricks, “which is going to wipe out our spawning seasons."

A group of scientists and community experts came together to examine not whether to building diversions, but how they would be operated.

“When people come to New Orleans, they want to eat oysters, they want to eat seafood. they want to eat shrimp,” said Dr. Earl Melancon, Ph.D., a Nicholls State University expert on shellfish. 

Melancon was one of a dozen experts who, in essence, tackled the question of whether it is possible to partially free the Mississippi River from its straight jacket of levees without ruining an entire way of life.

The Sediment Diversion Operations Expert Working Group, organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, represents a diverse collection of biologists, hydrologists, community, and other experts.

“I'm not pro-diversion, I’m not anti-diversion,” Melancon said.  “If you want to call me anything, it's pro-fisheries."

Melancon said the dialogue, created in a series of meetings, “was the best experience I've ever had and I've been doing this almost 40 years."

Dr. Rex Caffey, Ph.D., of the LSU Center for Natural Resource Economics also admitted to being a little skeptical at first, “because in a lot of our opinions, this really needed to start a long time ago."

The state operates a couple of smaller fresh water diversions, such as the Caernarvon structure near the Plaquemines-St. Bernard Parish line that is capable of delivering up to 10,000 cubic feet of water per second into Breton Sound.  

A source of deep controversy, Caernarvon rarely operates near capacity.

While the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is still in the planning and engineering phase, the first of the planned diversions on the Plaquemines Parish west bank would operate at up to 75,000 cfs.

Planners aim to rebuild the mosaic of islands, ridges and swamps that once provided natural hurricane defenses.

Fishermen fear a flood of polluted, fresh river water. 

"The frustrations over the operations to this point are completely understandable,” said Natalie Peyronnin, the Environmental Defense Fund’s director of science policy for the Mississippi Delta Restoration Program.

Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan envisioned a project pushing 250,000 cubic feet of water per second, approaching to the size of the Bonnet Carre Spillway (300,000 cfs).

While the plans have since been downsized, Peyronnin said the state’s focus so far has been on planning and engineering.

“But it doesn't help the fishermen and the communities understand how things are going to change in the future."

Melancon argues if the state has as part of its mission preserving a working coast, “ then the fishers of these estuaries are part of that coast."

The dozen scientists who came together in this group all offered their own specialty, Peyronnin, explained, each conducting presentations only focused on their area of expertise.  For example, a sedimentologist considered only how to operate diversions with the goal of achieving the most land building; a botanist looked solely at the effects on plants; a fisheries expert focused on preserving seafood stocks.

Along the way, those who participated said they came to realize the goals are not mutually exclusive.

“It started to come out there was this balance,” Peyronnin said.

For starters, the group said the diversions should not be run like  giant fire hoses, but should be phased in over a period of years to allow the marsh time to develop bayous, terraces and other characteristics of a typical Louisiana bayou.

“There needs to be a gradual opening,” Peyronnin said.

State planners have said in the past they are considering adding terraces, or small islands, to help channel the large amounts of river water that would pour from diversions.

“There’s not a system to deliver that level of water on day one," Peyronnin said.

Running the diversions full blast, she said, would also result in the loss of more vegetation and the land those plants hold in place.

“Without waiting for that, there would be a substantial amount of flooding above the marsh," Caffey said.

The timing of the diversion openings could also be shifted in order to avoid harm to fisheries.

Oyster growers worry that the diversions would be operated in the spring time, when the river is highest and packs the most land-building silt, mud and sand.

However, that could coincide with oyster spawning season.  Young oysters have little tolerance for fresh water.

Scientists have discovered the Mississippi carries a higher percentage of mud as it is rising, creating two or three windows of opportunity each year.

Last January, the river ran so high it forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

Members of the science group concluded a diversion could have been running at that time when the oysters-- larger by then-- could tolerate the fresh water. 

“There are ways that we can work together, that we can operate a diversion while still accounting for the needs of the species, for the needs of the communities,” Peyronnin said.

Caffey believes the time is long past due for an analysis of the short term effects of diversions on fisheries and communities “so we can find out who the winners and who the losers are."

He believes the state should consider one-time compensation to fishers for the portion of their business lost to diversions, a number he argues is probably “more reasonable than a lot of people fear and not the chicken little situation that others would suggest .”

Johnny Bradberry, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, has said the Edwards administration is considering some form of compensation for fishers.  However, Bradberry concedes he does not know where the cash-strapped state would find the money at the moment.

Peyronnin said the state needs to be upfront about how it plans to operate diversions, providing details long in advance.

“For specific species like oysters, for which investments need to be made three years in advance, there has to be some opportunity for those businesses, those fishermen, to make investments," Peyronnin said.

However, members of the group said they came away from the experience believing diversions are feasible and for more than land building. 

“I’ve actually become more positive about the realities of a diversion and the ability to build one,” Caffey said. 

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