Mud Wrestling: Skeptics question plans for rebuilding coastal Louisiana

Published: May. 1, 2013 at 10:37 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 27, 2013 at 12:20 AM CDT
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New land in the Wax Lake delta south of Morgan City (John Snell)
New land in the Wax Lake delta south of Morgan City (John Snell)

Breton Sound, La. -- George Ricks yanks a clump of Spartina grass from a dying marsh in St. Bernard Parish.

"It's not rooted at all," said Ricks, a charter boat captain who has fished in the Breton Sound area for 45 years.

The land loss is so rapid his boat's GPS device is confused.  "The map says we're sitting on land," Ricks said as he maneuvered through a couple feet of water in a bay that seems to stretch wider by the month.

Ricks blames the Caernarvon Fresh Water Diversion Project on the Plaquemines-St. Bernard Parish line, where the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channel river water into marsh on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

At full capacity, Caernarvon operates at 8,000 cubic feet per second.

If that diversion is a straw, the one planned nearby in Braithwaite would be a fire hose, unleashing up to 250,000 cfs of river water, approaching the rate of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

"The day the Corps of Engineers put the levees in the river system is the time that we went from a building delta to an absolutely crashing system," said Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Graves and a host of scientists argue the only way to restore coastal Louisiana is to mimic what built it in the first place: America's great river.  When man put the Mississippi in a straightjacket of levees, he robbed the marsh of the river's land-building powers.

"If we want there to be any land here in 50 or 100 years, we've got to change the way the system works," said David Muth, Louisiana state director of the National Wildlife Federation's Coastal Louisiana Campaign.

Early this week, dozens of commercial and charter fishermen packed the St. Bernard Parish Council chambers to protest plans for diversions in the state's Coastal Master Plan.

"It doesn't surprise me that we're hearing some second guessing and some concerns," said Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law at Tulane University. "In some ways, that's evidence that something may actually be about to happen."

Most coastal scientists and activists appear to buy into the argument that Louisiana must use the river, and they warn time is not on our side.

However, Dr. Pat Fitzpatrick, a meteorologist and coastal researcher, argues for a combination of smaller diversions and dredging, pumping sediment to build new land. He points to satellite images of Breton Sound before and after Katrina, which show dramatic loss of freshwater marsh.

"The area near the diversion is no longer resilient to hurricane storm surge and the reason for that is its root system is very shallow and weak," Fitzpatrick told us.

Critics of diversions also argue that we are not dealing here with Mark Twain's river.

A recent study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution cautioned that fertilizers in the modern river, nitrates and phosphates, begin destroying freshwater marsh after about five years.  Although the study raised concerns, the authors stopped short of suggesting the state should abandon diversion projects.

Farther from the Caernarvon Diversion, George Ricks points to healthier salt marsh. However, scientists counter that Caernarvon is a bogus comparison since it was designed only as a freshwater diversion.   Future projects would be designed to deliver sediment.

Then, there is concern about how much material the Mississippi actually carries.  One LSU study noted that the river carries only half its historic sediment load.  Much of the land-building material gets trapped behind hundreds of locks and dams on the Mississippi's main tributaries.

In fact, there are examples of the river's power to build land even today, most notably an accidental delta right on the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1941, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the Wax Lake Outlet, a new channel to the Gulf designed to lessen the flood threat to Morgan City.  Like a new artery, Wax Lake spit out river mud and a built a brand new, 30,000-acre delta.

"To say that there's not thriving vegetation there with the exact same water that's in the Mississippi River is just a fundamentally flawed statement," Graves said.

Fitzpatrick advocates for a great emphasis on dredging, arguing that Louisiana lacks the time to wait on the river's slower land-building process.

"They might work, but it would take 30 to 60 years to start building any land, and in the meantime we'll still experience all the erosion that's occurring today," Fitzpatrick said.

Diversion supporters point out the Coastal Master Plan also relies on dredging, but the root cause of the disease eating at the coast is a system deprived of freshwater.

"If you ran dredges 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year up and down this river, you'd only be getting the sand off the bottom," Muth said. "And that's only 20 percent of what the river carries. It's called 'big muddy' for a reason."

Muth insists Louisiana cannot be rebuilt by scraping sand from the bottom of the river. The land, he reasons, the stuff we're walking on today, is not at the bottom but in the water column.

"If you dig a hole in Louisiana, you're not digging through sand, you're digging through clay, you're digging through sediment, you're digging through silt," Muth said. "And we can't capture that with dredges."

As for concerns that large diversions will spoil fisheries, Muth concedes the task will require sacrifice, but that species will adapt.

"You can't freshen the Gulf of Mexico," Muth said. "We are going to have habitat for trout. We're going to have habitat for oysters. We're going to have it all, but its going to shift around."

That is small comfort to fisherman such as George Ricks. "Because I'm gonna' die in 20 years... why put a gun to my head tomorrow?"

Tulane's Davis believes the debate could send the wrong message to Washington.  "If we don't get our act together, if we don't tell a story that's coherent and urgent, I can promise that there are other places and other communities that will have a compelling story to tell," Davis said.