A Tale of 2 Fishermen: Charter captains take opposing views on largest coastal project

A Tale of 2 Fishermen: Charter captains take opposing views on largest coastal coastal project

(WVUE) - Ryan Lambert and George Ricks have become two of the most colorful and active voices in the debate over the most expensive coastal restoration project in history.

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion promises to reconnect the Mississippi River with the delta, pouring up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of fresh water and sediment into marshes and bays.

"Saltwater's the enemy," Lambert said as he piloted his boat through a natural crevasse on the river's east bank near the remains of the Fort St. Philip.

The proposed $1.4 billion project, while supported by most coastal scientists, draws spirited opposition in many quarters.

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, assuming it wins the required federal permits, aims to cut a hole in the levee near Myrtle Grove on the Plaquemines Parish west bank, install gates and guide levees and channel sediment into Barataria Bay at times of the year when the river runs high.

On the east bank of the river near the old fort, Lambert said he has watched the birth of a delta over the last ten years.

"The next generations want to see Louisiana like we've seen it, it's gotta start now."

The river got a little help from coastal scientists, who installed terraces, like long thin speed bumps, to slow the river's flow and capture mud and sand.

"The trick is slowing the sediment down and making it settle down," Lambert said, "because 80 percent of it is just floating.  It's the color of the water."

Lambert sees it as a working laboratory for the large, man-made diversions in the state's coastal master plan.

"The first rule of thumb should be do no harm," Ricks said with equal conviction as he looked at open water in Breton Sound where there was once a thriving marsh.

"The minute they open the gates (at Mid-Barataria), they're gonna cause economic hardship," Ricks said.

Ricks cites the smaller, existing Caernarvon Fresh Water Diversion near the Plaquemines-St. Bernard Parish line, which opened in 1991.

He pulls up marsh grass from a deteriorating island in Breton Sound, a sign, he argues, of the detrimental effects of nutrients in the river.

"There we go, you see the root systems, how short?" Ricks said.  "They should be a lot longer than that."

He and other opponents argue Caernarvon turned a salt marsh fresh and made it more vulnerable to the giant Hurricane Katrina that rolled over the marsh in 2005.

The CPRA argues that portion of the delta was already in distress when Katrina struck.

Ricks, who is unpersuaded, said, "When the storm surge comes in, it just peels it up like a carpet.  And that's what happened when we lost the 42 square miles at Caernarvon."

While supporters see diversions as a key element of saving the coast, Ricks sees economic ruin.

"Why do a project that's going to economically harm the very communities you're trying to save?"

Lambert and other supporters counter Caernarvon makes for a lousy comparison.

"That's like going to the doctor when he's closed and saying, 'Well, dang, he didn't do nothing for me.,'" Lambert said.

He echoes the findings of UNO scientists, who last year found that marsh was healthiest when closest to the river.

"The problem is we don't think about our own lifetime," Lambert said.  "We don't think about the future and future generations.  That's how we got into trouble with the levees."

Ricks and other opponents want faster results through dredging projects that pump sand and mud to create instant land.

"This isn't the river that created the delta and that river will never be here anymore ," Ricks said.

An LSU study found the modern river contains less than half the historical sediment load.

"Well, it takes time," Lambert said, "but once it does it fills in and all the sediment is hard as a rock."

Lambert argues the same forces chewing at the coast today will begin attacking newly built land from dredging unless the state adds fresh water to the equation.

"They say they base the master plan on the best science available," Ricks said, "but they're not using all the science.  And my theories, most of my theories are not from a charter boat captain's view.  I use scientific theories too."

He points to a nine-year study led by the Woods Hole Institution that found fertilizers poured into salt marsh weakened the grasses.

Neither man is simply an activist.

Lambert organized a $1 million project with Ducks Unlimited to install more terraces in nearby Bay Denesse, aimed at building 2,500 acres.

"I pestered Ducks Unlimited to death and they said, 'Go over there and shut him up.'"

Ricks was actively involved in helping Chalmette High School students grow mangrove trees recently planted in marsh.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm hunting bear a BB gun," he said of the state's efforts to build the diversions.  "But somebody's got to keep fighting."

Lambert is equally convinced of the wisdom of the diversions.

"We can no longer maintain the water in Louisiana for special interest groups, such as oysters, shrimps, even myself, charter captains," Lambert said.  "We've got to maintain the water for all the people in Louisiana."

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