The Mississippi River builds land in West Bay

After several high-water events, new land pops to the surface
Updated: Feb. 9, 2021 at 4:40 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Earl Armstrong, a 77-year-old cattle rancher from Boothville, has spent decades piloting his airboat out of a dock in Venice.

“I guarantee I’ve got tracks all over this place,” Armstrong joked.

The simple act of leaving tracks in the mud can be more difficult along parts of Louisiana’s rapidly-disappearing wetlands.

Armstrong has become something of an accidental coastal activist, an advocate for a project south of his home where sea now turns to land.

“Being someone that grew up down here and has been running this marsh ever since I could pull me feet out the mud, I feel good about it,” Armstrong said.

The source of his excitement is West Bay, into which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has diverted a portion of the Mississippi River.

In 2003, contractors for the Corps punched a hole in the river bank just upriver from Head of Passes, where the main stem of the Mississippi juts off in three directions before pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.

The West Bay diversion was an experiment, designed to show what would happen in an uncontrolled diversion into 17,000 acres of open water.

“Where we’re at right now probably used to be 7-8 feet of water,” Armstrong said. “We’re stuck on the mud with an air boat.”

The Mississippi River has run high several times over the past few years.

Each time, Armstrong said he has noticed new earth popping to the surface.

“Every year, you have another flood to push another film onto the land it made before.

In some years, Armstrong said, that can be a foot of land or more.

A trip into West Bay a few weeks ago in low tide, when the river was running a couple feet lower, revealed an island stretching more than a mile in length.

Just below the surface, more of what Armstrong described as “new land” could be seen.

“Over two-thirds of the way out into the bay and we have sandbars coming up for two miles around us,” Armstrong said.

Initially, scientists and engineers deemed the West Bay project a failure.

Nothing seemed to happen until 2010, when the Corps built the first of four islands with material dredged from the river.

The river current, blowing through the bay like a giant fire hose, slowed a bit as it pushed against the islands.

“It was coming through at a rapid rate, slowed it up and the then the sand started settling.”

Each time the river ran high, when people stressed about a spillway opening or the effects of fresh water pouring into Lake Pontchartrain, Armstrong waited in anticipation as the river coughed up more land.

“It tells me that this diversion is working really well.”

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has much grander plans for the Mississippi.

Upriver, it plans to build giant structures and gates to feed sand and mud into the marsh, including the $1.4 million Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish and a slightly smaller project on the east bank.

Like many people in the Plaquemines fishing communities, Armstrong views the bigger diversions with skepticism.

“I feel it’s hard to beat mother nature,” Armstrong said. “When you start building things to make it work, it doesn’t work like the river works.”

However, he likes what West Bay means for Plaquemines, a finger of land jutting into the Gulf and exposed to tropical weather.

“All this stuff is still holding and still growing.”

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