Billy Nungesser emerges as the most prominent opponent of a large coastal project

Lt. Governor warns Mid-Breton sediment diversion would kill Louisiana seafood industry
Updated: May. 24, 2021 at 9:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - For decades, coastal advocates have championed the idea of turning the Mississippi River loose into the marsh in an effort to restore parts of Louisiana’s rapidly-eroding coast.

“Absolutely not,” said Billy Nungesser, the state’s Republican Lt. Governor. “We cannot destroy our fisheries.”

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project, the most prominent feature of the state’s 50-year coastal master plan, would channel up to 75,000 cubic feet per of river water in the Plaquemines Parish West Bank south of Belle Chasse.

“We don’t have 50 years,” Nungesser said. “We’d better come up with a 5-10 year plan.”

Computer modeling cited in a draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found land-building in the project would peak after 30 years at 28 square miles.

However, it would come with costs, including damage to commercial fisheries in the bay.

A recent study from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland warned fresh water from the river would also make bottlenose dolphins “functionally extinct” in a large portion of the bay.

Nungesser has been taking his case to local parish councils, including St. Bernard, and Plaquemines, to rally opposition to the diversion.

Both parishes, and St. Tammany, have gone on record in opposition.

“Are you really willing to risk our way of life? Look, the oil and gas is going down,” Nungesser said. “The one thing we can continue to grow and nourish for generations is the great Louisiana seafood.

Nungesser suggested the state’s settlement with BP and its partners from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill provides the money to restore coastal Louisiana.

“God help us if we waste it,” Nungesser said.

Many coastal scientists argue, with the entire system in collapse, only a portion of the remaining coast can be saved.

Since 1932, geologists estimate the state has lost 2,000 square miles of marsh, ridges and islands.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) sees the west bank diversion, and a similar project on the east bank, as the best hope for restoring land.

“We’ve already spent over $100 million and we don’t have a permit yet? Does that not seem a little odd?” Nungesser asked.

He argues that over the years, the project has built up a powerful constituency of consultants and engineers as the project cost escalated to a total of $2 billion.

“Follow the money,” Nungesser said. “That’s always the source of all evil. Who’s getting rich off of this thing?”

At a recent meeting of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, CPRA Chairman Chip Kline promised the agency will detail more specific efforts to soften the blow to fishermen in coming weeks.

“There’s $300 million in mitigation and contingency funds that are set aside” in mitigation plans, Kline said.

CPRA officials have also noted the master plan relies heavily on dredging project, but argue projects are not sustainable without changing the hydrology of the bay.

“Lt. Governor Nungesser, I think, is on everyone’s radar because of who he is and he makes it his business to be noticed,” said Mark Davis, Director of the Tulane University Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

Environmental advocates argue the state has already lost decades analyzing and re-analyzing the science of coastal restoration.

Killing the diversion, they say, would send the state back to the starting point for how to spend settlement money from the BP spill.

“It’s not a question of switching from option A to option B,” Davis said. “Right now, option B is to let the system continue to collapse.”

Nungesser’s opposition could be more important down the road. With the next gubernatorial election a couple years away, he would seem to be one of the early front runners.

Furthermore, he has made clear that he would not hesitate to kill the project, especially if the groundbreaking had yet to happen.

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could issue a permit sometime next year, long before the election, court cases and appeals are certain to follow.

“I’m prepared to do what’s best to save our coast in our lifetime and if that means stopping the project, yes.”

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