Louisiana oyster growers bitterly oppose Louisiana’s largest coastal project
Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion aims to mimic the Mississippi River’s land-building powers
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - South of Empire near the barrier islands, Nathan Jurisich mans the controls of one of his family’s oyster boats as it scrapes the water bottom.
“There’s not too many of us left,” said the 30-year-old Jurisich, a fourth-generation oysterman in a business many young people now avoid.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do all my life,” Jurisich said. “I just love it, and I love being out here.”
His father, Mitch, navigates through a field of bamboo poles south of Empire when Mitch’s grandparents started the family business. The poles, Mitch said, mark oysters leases, “on both sides of what used to be marshland.”
Today, it is a vast expanse of open water sometimes six feet deep, separated by the Gulf of Mexico only by a string of islands. Mitch has witnessed this part of the coast degrade from marshes and bayous to one large bay.
“They say stage four cancer is the worst cancer you can have,” the elder Jurisich said. “Louisiana’s in stage 10 cancer right now.”
Yet, people in the oyster business now see the state’s most ambitious-ever coastal project as the greatest threat to their livelihoods.
The $2 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion would channel up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of Mississippi River water and sediment into the marsh south of Belle Chasse.
A final environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds the diversion would sculpt 21 square miles of land over 50 years.
“To wait 50 years, this is gonna be up against the doorstep of New Orleans,” said Jurisich, who chairs the Louisiana Oyster Task Force. “I don’t think there’s any project big enough that can combat what’s coming in 50 years.”
Oystermen complain that much fresh water in the system would devastate oyster leases. Jurisich argues the state’s tourism culture is also at stake.
“People don’t come to New Orleans to eat steak,” Jurisich said. “They come for its local flair, its seafood, our culture, our heritage.”
Louisiana has already spent about one billion dollars restoring barrier islands, including two-and-a-half miles of shoreline along Pelican Island just south of Jurisich’s oyster leases.
“About a third of this island is all that was left.”
Today, he said, the island provides a degree of protection for the oyster beds, calming the waters from the Gulf.
“We harvest oysters right up to the island now.”
Supporters of the diversion point out the state devotes billions of dollars in its Coastal Master Plan to dredging, and projects to deliver sediment by pipe to restore islands and marsh. However, they argue dredging will not change the dynamics that got Louisiana into this mess. The delta, disconnected from the river, is rapidly subsiding.
“Will things be different in the future? Absolutely,” said Bren Haase, Executive Director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “Will they be different in the future for the oyster industry without this project? Absolutely.”
CPRA argues Louisiana’s coastal issues, the loss of an area the size of Delaware since 1932, began when man locked the river in levees.
“This is a moment that has been decades in the making,” said CPRA Chairman Chip Kline.
Mid-Barataria will build and maintain more land than any other coastal project, Kline argued.
“This is, essentially, recreating the natural process that built the state of Louisiana to begin with.”
The state plans a similar, slightly smaller, project on the east bank of the river.
Downriver from the proposed Mid-Breton Diversion, the Mississippi has broken through its bank in several areas, including Mardi Gras Pass and Neptune Pass.
While many coastal activists point to lush, green, thriving new deltas, oyster growers see disaster.
“500,000 acres on the east bank of the river that used to be the most pristine oyster-growing areas in the state are now dormant,” Jurisich said.
The project would be funded through fines and settlements associated with the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The cost estimate includes $378 million in mitigation to offset some of the projected harm, such as damage to commercial fisheries.
$26 million for the oyster industry specifically would include the seeding of new public oyster grounds in places farther from the diversion site.
“We already know we’re going to feel impacts far beyond what they’re estimating,” Jurisich said.
The state vows to work with oyster growers and others impacted to ensure they can stay in business.
“The benefits of this project in our minds far outweigh the impacts,” Kline said.
While smaller diversions already exist, critics point out that nothing like this has been attempted on this scale.
Nathan Jurisich sees it as experimenting with his future.
“We don’t know exactly how this diversion will work and that’s the thing I have a problem with.”
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