As hurricane season nears peak, battle rages over how to rebuild coastal Louisiana

Published: Jul. 8, 2013 at 7:46 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2013 at 7:58 PM CDT
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A ship cruises up the Mississippi River near a marshy area on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish
A ship cruises up the Mississippi River near a marshy area on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish

East Plaquemines Parish, La. -- Charter boat captain Ryan Lambert puts the loss of 1,900 sq. miles of coastal Louisiana into perspective, pointing out it's like losing three Lake Pontchartrains.

Lambert, who fiercely defends the state's plans to rebuild parts of coastal Louisiana, notes, "We have lost our protection."

Louisiana's Master Plan lays out a $50 billion vision for protecting south Louisiana over the next half-century, including a series of increasingly controversial river diversions.

Supporters argue the Mississippi River delta began to collapse from the moment the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built levees for flood and navigation control, cutting off the surrounding wetlands from annual spring floods that had deposited land-building silt for tens of thousands of years.

While some of the diversions are modest in scope, one planned near Braithwaite on the east bank could carry up to 250,000 cfs, or approaching the size of the Bonnet Carre Spillway at Norco, La.

Last month, dozens of commercial fishermen and charter boat guides packed a meeting in Chalmette to oppose the diversions.

Critics insist the diversions would bring pollutants to the marsh, converting it to a fresh water environment more susceptible to storm surge.

Monday, Lambert showed a group of reporters several spots on the east bank of southern Plaquemines Parish where the river has built its own diversions.

"Everybody shows you the negative part of it," Lambert said. "I want to show you the positive part."

He counts 19 natural cuts in southern Plaquemines where, in the absence of a levee, the river has spilled over its banks to build land.

Lambert points to Google Earth time lapse maps, which show one of the few places in Louisiana where land is being built. "You go from a dead zone [on the west bank] to a tropical paradise" on the east bank, Lambert said.

The area, which sports healthy plant growth and teems with wildlife, is a far cry from what is typical along the South Louisiana coastline.

"You see a glimpse of the way the system used to work," said David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation Coastal Louisiana Campaign.

Muth insists other methods, such as dredging, must be part of the equation. However, he argues only diversions can address the root cause of the problem: a land mass disconnected from the river that built it.

Without the diversions, Muth argues, "The sea is going to win. The Gulf of Mexico is going to win the fight."