Supporters of using the Mississippi River to build land point to an ‘accidental delta’ near Morgan City

A canal into the Wax Lake area produced new marsh and islands over the last 80 years
Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 10:59 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Alisha Renfro, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, spends her days digging into the earth, and back in time.

“This is in the past,” said Renfro as she points to a shovelful of soil in the Wax Lake Delta. “You see the much darker material,” she added, near the top of the shovel.

Renfro is among those leading a field trip into this delta, which was built over the course of the last 80 years entirely by accident.

In the early 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set out to prevent the Atchafalaya River from flooding Morgan City. It dug a new channel upriver from Morgan City, a 15-mile long straight line to the Gulf of Mexico. Following the 1973 flood, new land started popping to the surface in what today is referred to as the Wax Lake Delta.

“This is the complete opposite of what is happening in the rest of the coast, but it’s the test case of what can happen if we utilize the power of the river,” said Michelle Felterman, a Coastal Resource Sciences Supervisor at the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

“In present day, while most of Louisiana’s coast has lost land, we’ve actually seen a gain of land here in the Wax Lake,” Renfro said.

Wax Lake may be an accidental delta, but the state of Louisiana is pushing much more ambitious-- and controversial-- plans to turn lose parts of the Mississippi River in hopes of duplicating the river’s natural land-building process.

“One of the cool things about this place is it just keeps growing,” Felterman said.

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project about 20 miles south of Belle Chasse on the west bank of the Mississippi River would pour up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of river water and sediment into the marsh.

A draft environmental impact statement from the Army Corps found the diversion would build 27 square miles of land, peaking in year 30 of the project.

Not everyone is convinced.

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“I’ve been fishing these waters for over 50 years and I’ve seen it degrade,” said George Ricks, one of the founders of the anti-diversion group, The Save Louisiana Coalition.

Ricks points to the Lake Borgne Marsh Creation Project near Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish, where contractors are using material dredged from the lake to create or nourish 2,700 acres of marsh.

Map depicting local of two sections of proposed ridge restoration in St. Bernard Parish
Map depicting local of two sections of proposed ridge restoration in St. Bernard Parish(WVUE)

“This project will be completed in three years and you’ll have land that you can see immediately,” Ricks said.

Disciples of the diversions argue, impressive as they might be, dredging projects do nothing to change the forces that steadily are devouring coastal Louisiana. Among them subsidence, sea-level rise, and salt water intrusion.

David Muth, a coastal consultant, argues the diversion will sustain itself for free.

“It’s gravity. It’s time. It doesn’t require continuous human intervention,” Muth said.

Critics point to the extended opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway in 2019, which poured trillions of gallons of Mississippi River water in Lake Pontchartrain. Fertilizer runoff turned the lake and surrounding waters green with algae.

“The narrative before 2019 was we’re going to take the river, create land, that’s it,” said Moby Solangi, President and Executive Director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. “I think the repercussions were never properly addressed.”

Solangi and other critics point to the potential harm diversions would cause to marine life, including bottlenose dolphins.

A recent study from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found Mid-Barataria project would virtually wipe out dolphins in Barataria Bay.

“These are animals on top of the food chain,” Solangi said. “Basically, when the dolphins are gone, the entire ecosystem that supported them is gone.”

The state plans to spend $60 million to monitor dolphins, and in some cases, nurse them back to health.

Supporters argue a range of other creatures would benefit, from alligators to nesting birds.

“I’m all for building marsh, building barrier islands with dredges and pumps,” Muth said. “We need to do that. We’re in an emergency situation, but we can’t rely on it.”

The Corps expects to issue a final Environmental Impact Statement in September and decide whether to grant a permit for the first big diversion in December.

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