Task Force rescues coastal project slated for closure

Published: Oct. 12, 2012 at 12:27 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 12, 2012 at 2:29 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn
River mud flows around an island in the West Bay Diversion in this 2011 file photo (John Snell)
River mud flows around an island in the West Bay Diversion in this 2011 file photo (John Snell)

A federal-state task force reversed course Thursday, voting to keep alive a coastal restoration project building land near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Task Force, or CWPPRA, rescinded its earlier vote to close the West Bay Diversion.

10 years ago, contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a hole in the levee, a pilot project designed to harness the river's land-building power.

For years, the project was considered a colossal failure.  The task force voted to shut down the project, partly because it was blamed for silting in a nearby river anchorage.

Maritime interests point out under the original agreement authorizing the project, the CWPPRA task force was responsible for any negative effects on navigation.

Engineers estimated the Corps could run up $120 million over 10 years in maintenance costs associated with dredging the anchorage, enough to devour a huge chunk of the CWPPRA budget.

Then, came the great flood of 2011. The river belched a giant plug of mud into West Bay and islands started popping to the surface.

"This thing is making land like I never even believed it would," said Earl Armstrong, a local cattle rancher who championed the project when virtually everyone else considered West Bay a lost cause.

Three years ago, Armstrong convinced parish officials, then the Corps, to build some artificial islands a couple miles from the levee.

Acting as a sort of backstop, Plaquemines Parish officials insist the islands slowed the river's flow and allowed mud to begin piling up under the surface of the bay.

Adding more fuel to the debate, a Corps study recently found that while the diversion had altered the river flow, the anchorage was silting in with or without the project. The study, by the Corps computer center in Vicksburg, Mississippi, estimated the diversion was responsible for roughly 25 percent of the silt problem.

In Thursday's compromise,  task force members agreed to fund one more round of dredging at an estimated cost of $15 million.

Plaquemines Coastal Zone Management Director P.J. Hahn told the task force, "To close it, we think, would be criminal after all of the work, after all of the money that has been spent."

While navigation interests did not oppose the compromise, they still have long-term concerns about the state of the anchorage.   "West Bay does cause shoaling," said Michael Lorino, president of Associated Branch Pilots, told the task force.

While the vote may not provide a complete solution, the compromise appears to buy about three years to allow for negotiations.

"I thought we were going to have a fight to get here," said Sean Duffy of the Big River Coalition. "There's a compromise. It buys us time to do what we really need to do."

The CWPPRA task force, which gives projects about a 20-year life span, argues the next $15 million for dredging satisfies its responsibility for the shoaling.