Two spots on a map highlight the bitter fight over how to fix Louisiana's coast

Published: Aug. 8, 2013 at 12:15 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 3, 2013 at 2:45 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn
Dr. Robert Twilley, an LSU coastal scientist, stands on new delta near the Wax Lake Outlet
Dr. Robert Twilley, an LSU coastal scientist, stands on new delta near the Wax Lake Outlet

St. Mary Parish, La. - Dr. Robert Twilley, an LSU coastal scientist, grabs a handful of river sediment, the building blocks for one of the newest places on earth.

"When you feel it, you can feel the silt and you can feel the particles that are in this landscape that help build this land," Twilley said.

Like many supporters of Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan, Twilley points to an accidental paradise southwest of Morgan City as an example of the power of the river.

In 1941, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, aiming to prevent flooding along the Atchafalaya River in Morgan City, cut a new channel to the Gulf of Mexico.

At the mouth of the Wax Lake Outlet, a 30,000-acre delta has formed.

Today, fresh water pond weeds grow where the land sticks its toe into the Gulf of Mexico.

A couple miles to the north, 30-foot willow trees tower over islands that appeared in the 1980's.

"This willow is sort of like the weed tree of coastal Louisiana," Twilley said, noting these new forests are important hurricane protection for Morgan City. "Wherever you find high ground and no salt, this is the tree that you'll find."

However, Louisiana's ambitious plans to rebuild coastline have sparked an increasingly intense fight over river diversions.

"Those who oppose diversions ridiculously assert that the river water is poison," said Chuck Perrodin, spokesman for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. "This proves them wrong."

In fact, nothing about the state's coastal restoration plan creates more controversy than the idea of cutting holes in levees, diverting fresh water into the marsh and into fisheries."

Charter Boat Captain George Ricks points to another spot on the map, the Caernarvon Fresh Water Diversion east of New Orleans on the Plaquemines-St. Bernard Parish line.

Areas of Breton Sound, east of the diversion, suffered some of the greatest land loss after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"This area, Delacroix area, lost 42 square miles of marshland," Rick said, "and 37 of those 42 square miles was nearest the diversion."

The issue has created an alliance of charter boat captains and commercial fishermen, calling themselves The Save Louisiana Coalition.

They believe the modern Mississippi River, loaded with fertilizer pollution converted the area to a fresh water marsh that was weaker and unable to stand up to storm surge.

Ricks calls plans for a 250,000-square-foot diversion near Braithwaite "unfathomable."

The existing Caernarvon Diversion operates at a maximum of 8,000 cubic feet per second.

"If you magnify that by 31 times, what do you think is going to happen?"

Several months ago, a study by the respected Woods Hole Institution cautioned nitrates and phosphates in the river begin destroying fresh water marsh after about five years.

Scientists in the diversion camp see Caernarvon as a bogus comparison.

Azure Bevington, a PhD student in coastal wetlands ecology at LSU, is studying how marsh plants filter nitrates and, together with bacteria, pull pollutants out of the water.

She notes the plants forming in a new delta would mimic nature more directly than the system around Caernarvon.

"A significant portion of that (nitrate pollution) is being removed from the water as it moves over the wetlands," Bevington said.

Fishermen aren't buying it, pointing out the Wax Lake Outlet of the 1940's emptied straight into the Gulf of Mexico, where there was no estuary to harm.

They fear a repeat of the Gulf "dead zone" in some of the most productive fisheries in America.

"It's not okay to put it in the Gulf, but it's okay to put it in the marsh?" Ricks asked.

Bevington believes the different types of freshwater plants in the new delta would stand up better to storm surge.

"It's not the same process at all," Bevington said. "To say fresh water marshes are more susceptible to hurricane damage does not fit Wax Lake Delta."

Bevington believes river diversions can reverse some of the long-term loss along a coastline that's on a going-out-of-business curve.

"They'll be building instead of dying like the other fresh water marshes."

Dr. Twilley notes the river water in Wax Lake brings much heavier building material compared to Caernarvon, which was specifically located in an area with little sediment.

"It (Caernarvon) was designed as a fresh water diversion to control salinity," Twilley said. "It was never designed to build land."

George Ricks also sees it as "comparing apples to oranges," but for different reasons.

An LSU study found the modern Mississippi River now packs roughly half its historic sediment flow.

The rest gets trapped behind hundreds of locks and dams on the various rivers that drain into the Mississippi.

"The river in its current state is not natural," said Clint Guidry, President of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, noting levees run "almost to the Canadian border."

Diversion critics argue the state should pick its spots for land building, relying more heavily on dredging and pumping land to create new coastline.

Twilley notes the master plan also includes dredging, but insists, "it's all about scaling the problem with the solution."

He argues the cost, sometimes tens of millions of dollars for a few hundred acres, makes it impossible to dredge enough land.

Guidry and many other diversion critics argue the state wastes millions of dollars building small-scale projects and burning through money with unnecessary costs related to mobilizing and de-mobilizing dredging equipment and pipes.

"It's not open-minded enough," Guidry insisted. "I think business would look at this a whole lot differently."

Critics also note the river took 6,000 years to build Southeastern Louisiana, insisting the diversions would take too much time to show results.

Twilley counters Wax Lake "represents something that grew up above water over about 30 years" following a 1973 flood.

"I still argue it's a generation, not thousands of years," Twilley said.

The stakes could scarcely be higher and many of those most affected by Louisiana's land loss are among the most skeptical.

"There is no like project to compare this to," Guidry said. "It is purely speculation."