A Louisiana swamp is dying, but a first-of-its-kind arrangement may save it

Maurepas Swamp River Diversion is “like watering a lawn”
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 10:59 AM CST
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GRAMERCY, LA. (WVUE) - Kirk Songy steers a boat down the Blind River outside Gramercy in the Maurepas Swamp, reflecting on his early experiences hunting here in the 1970s.

“Mallard hunting was like world-class hunting,” Songy said.

Over the years, the mallards and other birds have mostly gone elsewhere.

“The birds just don’t even come back there anymore.”

Scientists blame a lack of fresh water in a system now starved for nutrients.

Anyone taking the I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge drives right over the Maurepas Swamp, many probably without noticing its decline.

Cut off by levees from the Mississippi River, the cypress and tupelo trees here are dying a slow and steady death.

“It doesn’t happen real quick,” said Brad Miller, a project manager for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “The trees are still there. They’re just not in good shape.”

Alisha Renfro, a coastal scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, notes cypress trees can survive for a long time in less than idea conditions.

“In the long term, it’ll be doomed if you don’t have more nutrients, freshwater flow coming into the system,” Renfro said. “It would take a while, but in a hundred years, most of it would probably be gone.”

CPRA plans to reverse the damage by sticking a straw into the Mississippi River, a $300 million structure with gates and a canal to feed fresh water from the Mississippi River into the swamp.

Planners say $300 million project would benefit 45,000 acres of cypress and tupelo trees in a state Wildlife Management Area.

The project, which has been on the books for several decades, is taking off thanks to a first-of-its-kind arrangement with a new levee being built in the river parishes.

The 18-and-a-half mile West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee Project will stretch from the Bonnet Carre Spillway to the river in Garyville.

It is designed to provide 100-year storm protection for 60,000 people in St. Charles, St. John, and St. James Parishes.

Since construction of the levee will destroy existing wetlands, federal law requires the state offset the damage, either by building new wetlands, or paying someone else to do so.

For the first time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is allowing the state to fill that mitigation requirement with a coastal project, the Maurepas River Diversion.

“This is the first time the state has built a restoration project to be used as mitigation for a federal corps project,” Miller said. “It was a really big victory.”

Most of the funding for the diversion will come from fines and settlements associated with the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

As diversions go, this one is small at just 2,000 cubic feet per second.

However, planners say it will make a huge difference in a system cutoff from the annual floods that once fed nutrients into Maurepas.

“It’s like watering a garden,” Miller said. “You don’t need a fire hose. You’ve just got to turn the sprinkler on for an hour or two a day and it does wonders, right?”

Kirk Songy sees lots of reasons for optimism.

“You’re going to see the ducks and the geese, and the fishing and all that, it’s only going to get better.”

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