PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Plaquemines Parish government on Friday partially opened some of the pipes that siphon fresh water from the Mississippi River on the west bank about 10 miles south of Belle Chasse.
In 1992, the parish and the state governments installed the two sets of siphons, one at Naomi and the other near West Pointe a la Hache, at a cost of $16 million with the aim of pushing back salt water and protecting land. The state picked up 75 percent of the cost with the parish funding the balance.
Two sets of four large pipes dip into the Mississippi River, cross over the levee under LA. 23, and send water down a canal.
Widely hailed at the time, the siphons have grown controversial and are rarely used today.
"When they do run it, it's bringing a lot of fresh water and sediment out here, and it's growing all this grass along the banks" said Foster Creppel, the owner of Woodland Plantation and a local coastal activist.
Even though the siphons were never designed to build land, only to manage salinity, Creppel believes the ones at Naomi have played a role in saving a nearby cypress forest and filling some nearby channels.
Even with the river level high, Plaquemines Parish was not running them until today.
"It infuriates me that we don't turn these siphons on," Creppel said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has prohibited the parish from running the West Pointe a la Hache siphons because of construction on a nearby levee that separates populated areas from Barataria Bay.
Plaquemines Parish officials say they have delayed turning on the other siphons out of concern the water flow could compromise another so-called "back levee."
"My first duty is to protect the people of this parish, protect the property of this parish," said Parish President Amos Cormier III.
When run wide open, about 2,000 cubic feet per second moves through each set of siphons.
Creppel says coastal scientists he has spoken with believe fresh water levels would rise only near the main channel near the siphons and would have little effect on features such as the levee a couple miles away.
"It's very political to run siphons and diversions," said Creppel, noting that commercial fishermen frequently complain that too much fresh water in the system kills their oyster beds.
Cormier, who took office only a few months ago, said his top priority has been to address the parish's troubled finances. Upon taking office, he said he was told the Parish would run out of cash in August. With money still tight, Cormier said the parish would open itself up to a lawsuit if a levee were to fail.
"If I had a reserve amount, my fears would be lessened," Cormier said.
Creppel, who vows to keep making noise about the issue, believes the siphons have been run over the years less than 10 percent of the time.
Unlike larger fresh water diversions the state operates, detailed records have not been kept over the years about the siphon operations.
Friday, parish officials turned on two of the four siphons at Naomi.
Vincent Frelich, the Plaquemines Parish Director of Coastal Restoration, said he would shut down the siphons at the first sign the water flow was endangering the back levee.