Pipe delivers a beach, long distance, to south La.

Published: Feb. 8, 2013 at 12:46 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 8, 2013 at 2:47 AM CST
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Sand pours out of a dredge pipe on Scofield Island near the mouth of the Mississippi River
Sand pours out of a dredge pipe on Scofield Island near the mouth of the Mississippi River

Plaquemines Parish, La. -- In a remote spot where land meets sea, workers have reclaimed a little territory.  On Scofield Island, west of the Mississippi River's mouth, the newest part of Louisiana pours out of a pipe.

As the dredge pipe delivered sand, Dave Johanson surveyed land that "did not exist two days ago."

Johanson, who manages the project for Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, explained, "We would have been over our heads in water."

Great Lakes is the state's contractor for a $60 million project, building two and a half miles of shoreline and marsh.

Nearly three years ago, Scofield Island sat directly in the path of oil from the Gulf spill, one of the islands onto which helicopters dropped Volkswagen-sized sand bags to block oil.  Later, as an extra layer of protection, BP PLC agreed to fund roughly $350 million for the construction of sand berms on Scofield and a series of other islands. By the time the well was capped, $100 million was left unspent.

The work on Scofield is part of the state's berms-to-barrier-islands program.  The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority negotiated a deal with BP to use the leftover money on barrier island restoration.

"We transitioned the remaining dollars from that agreement," said Kyle Graham, CPRA's deputy executive director.

To form this new beach, the sand has traveled long distance.  In the Mississippi River, the giant dredge "California" chews at the river bottom, mining the material and pumping it to Scofield Island 22 miles away.

"We've never tapped riverine sediment for a barrier island project before," said Graham, who notes the project represents the longest delivery of sediment ever attempted in Louisiana.

The dredge pipe runs six miles upriver from the dredge before crossing the levee, cutting under two roadways and a small canal.  It then juts down the Empire Canal to the Gulf.

"It's the most ambitious thing CPRA has ever attempted [on a barrier island]," Graham said.

The feat is made possible with a series of large booster pumps connected to the pipe.

Louisiana's coastal master plan relies heavily on the concept of delivering sediment over long distance, but many experts have doubted it could be done.

"We're excited about the possibilities in the future," Graham said. "I think it proves that some of the projects that we're targeting in the master plan are doable."

Last year, a separate federal project remolded Scofield's twin, Pelican Island, just to the west.  Half a dozen projects over the last 15 years have restored some of these critical necklaces of sand.

"We really have succeeded in restoring this 20 miles of shoreline," said Rachel Sweeney, a NOAA coastal scientist during a trip to Pelican Island last July.

Sweeney notes the rebuilt islands have faired reasonably well over time.  "The areas that have not been restored are completely decimated and have returned to open water," Sweeney said.

Scientists and engineers designed the projects with marsh on the back side of the islands, allowing them to "roll back" onto themselves during storm events.   Instead of falling into the Gulf, the island theoretically moves onto the marsh platform.

"When we design our projects, we're really making a deposit in the bank and we're designing with nature, so to speak," Sweeney said.

Getting to the point of turning dirt and sand can involve a long, often frustrating process of satisfying conflicting interests, from shipping companies worried about navigation to land owners and commercial fishermen concerned about damage to leases.

Maritime industry representative Sean Duffy recalls first hearing about Scofield Island in the year 2000.  "This is almost eight years in the making, to see it actually working and working well," said Duffy, executive director of The Big River Coalition.

Duffy sees this project as a model for cooperation among all these various interests.  "We want the sediment out of the river channel," he said, "and what better place for it to go than back along our coast for coastal protection?"