NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The largest coast restoration project in U.S. history, the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, reached a milestone with the publishing of a required federal environmental study.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement finds that, at its peak in the year 2050, the project would have built or sustained 28 square miles of marsh in Barataria Bay.
“The power of that river, and the sediment in carries, is what built South Louisiana,” said Bren Haase, Executive Director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
The state proposes to punch a hole in the levee south of Belle Chasse and channel up to 75,000 cubic feet of river water per second into the bay, an effort to mimic the river’s land building powers.
The overall project cost, now estimated at $2 billion, would be paid for with fines and settlements from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“Some people might have some questions about some of the challenges,” said Kristi Trail, Executive Director of the Pontchartain Conservancy. “Overall, we see good news out of this environmental impact statement.”
The draft EIS, more than 1,000 pages in length, is a required step in the federal approval process.
By law, the Corps and other federal agencies must examine the benefits and costs of the diversion, along with alternatives to the proposal.
The draft version makes no attempt to provide an up or down answer about the project, but could help to shape debate over the controversial proposal moving forward.
The Corps anticipates making a final decision sometime next year.
The draft also partly redefines the purpose of the project, viewing it as compensating for damage the oil spill inflicted on the marsh and habitat.
However, the Corps analysis also focused on the anticipated negative effects, including harm to bottlenose dolphin populations in Barataria Bay and to commercial fisheries from an influx of trillions of gallons of fresh water and nutrients.
“Why do a project that’s going to economically harm the very communities you’re trying to save,” said George Ricks of The Save Louisiana Coalition,” a group of fishermen vehemently opposed to the diversion projects that the state plans for both banks of the Mississippi.
The Louisiana Trustee Implementation Group, a joint effort of state and federal agencies overseeing the oil settlement monies, proposes ways to offset the diversion’s harmful effects.
Those are included in a separate restoration plan that includes: funding dolphin rescue and recovery programs; proving refrigeration to shrimpers who would have to travel farther for their catch; and seeding new oyster beds.
“With the diversion in place, you may make some of those areas more productive,” Haase said.
Ricks was unpersuaded, arguing the proposed mitigation falls far short of adequately compensating fishers.
“Their mitigation is that the long term benefits are gonna outweigh the short term, adverse impacts,” Ricks said. “The minute you open it up, you’re going to put people out of work. Families are going to suffer. We’re going to lose our fisheries, we’re going to lose the dolphins.”
While the report finds dolphin populations would recover in future years, state officials cited recent evidence that dolphin populations may have moved out of Galveston Bay to avoid fresh water following Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
The Corps draft also finds the state’s plan more efficiently builds land than the alternatives, including multiple, smaller diversions.
Larger scale diversions would create faster currents that deliver more sediment through the man-made channel, the draft found.
Rising seas and subsidence in the future would also be expected to claim much of the land from dredging projects designed to build marsh.
“There’s no other project in the state’s history that’s been more studied, more scrutinized, more modeled,” Haase said.
Supporters argue without action, the delta will continue to collapse.
“In order to save what can be saved of this coast, it’s going to take really big, bold projects and projects that will have negative consequences on someone or something,” said Mark Davis, Director of the Tulane University Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.
Even with the proposed diversion, the draft finds sea-level rise and other factors would reduce some of the total land in the project’s later years.
The project would result in 26 percent more land in the Barataria Basin than if nothing were done, the draft found.
“There is no status quo to maintain,” Davis said.
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