Will river water save Louisiana's coast or kill the marsh?
St. Mary Parish, La. - Azure Bevington, a PhD student in coastal wetlands ecology at LSU, stands in the Wax Lake Delta, a spot that did not exist when she was born in 1980.
"It's really amazing to think about, that this is really some of the newest land in the United States, or the world," Bevington said.
The Wax Lake Delta was born by accident after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a channel from the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf to prevent flooding in Morgan City.
Dug in 1941, the Wax Lake Outlet dumped billions of tons of sediment in the decades that followed until land started popping to the surface following the 1978 Mississippi River flood.
"This is a very important landscape because it represents the capacity of the Mississippi to build land," said Dr. Robert Twilley, an LSU coastal scientist.
The state's Coastal Master Plan calls for sticking big straws into the Mississippi to reconnect the river to the land, a prospect that scares the daylights out of many commercial fishermen and charter boat captains.
"This fragile marsh that's left will be blown out to Breton Sound," said George Ricks, a charter boat operator, who is among the leaders of a group calling itself the Save Louisiana Coalition. "There will be nothing left."
Ricks questions whether man can truly mimic nature, comparing a planned 250,000 cubic feet per second diversion near Braithwaite on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish to Niagara Falls.
"I got guys come from Hawaii to fish with me," Ricks said. "We've got fishing here they have no place else in the world. And you're looking to take it away? It's unthinkable."
The National Marine Fisheries Service voiced similar concern about the Mid-Barataria Diversion, planned for the west bank of Plaquemines, in a letter to the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Roy Crabtree, the NMF regional administrator, listed a number of concerns, including the possibility that the diversion would "displace marine fishery species from currently productive habitats to less supportive habitats."
While stopping short of opposing the diversion, Crabtree voiced concern that river water would "convert essential fish habitat to areas no longer supportive of some federally-managed marine fishery species or their prey items."
Supporters of diversions note National Marine Fisheries is charged with protecting habitat important to marine species.
Twilley, countering that the master plan has the same mission, said he can understand the NMF position "if the only concern is protecting an existing fishing spot."
Twilley argues Louisiana has an "artificial fishery," in which salt water species move much closer to the river for much of the year than nature ever intended.
"The problem in Louisiana is we're addicted to salt," Twilley said, "because that salt brings tremendous benefits in fisheries."
He and other supporters of diversions acknowledge there will be pain involved in the transition to a fresher system, but Twilley said, "We have to make a clear distinction between migration, or movement of species in part of the system, and disappearance."
The diversions would run during springtime floods, not necessarily every year, but at a critical time for young fish.
"If the juvenile fish can't get into the estuary, there will be no more adult fish out there," Ricks said.
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, complains the entire burden is falling on the fishing industry. "It's almost like you don't count," Guidry said.
He fears once a diversion is in place, the state would be very reluctant to shut it down, even if it fails.
"It's like we expect you to make this sacrifice on your own nickel," Guidry said. "You know, it's always easier to throw your neighbor to the wolves."
Most coastal scientists argue, without bold action, Louisiana's coast is doomed to vanish and with it, the huge fish populations.
"I would argue New Orleans is not sustainable in the long run without regaining some of the landscape around its buffer to protect it from the Gulf of Mexico," Twilley said.
George Ricks and many other fishermen remain skeptical.
"You've got a resource here," Ricks said. "Why kill it now for the sake of an experiment? They don't know if these things are going to work."