Venice, La. - Giant teeth chew at the water bottom as a dredge sucks dirt and sand from the Mississippi and a pipe snakes its wake through a few miles of marsh to a brand new island.
In the West Bay Diversion near the mouth of the Mississippi River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gives nature a helping hand. The Corps is pumping river sediment through several miles of pipe to create 150 acres of new land.
West Bay is a coastal project with a split personality.
The dredging works in conjunction with a river diversion created 10 years ago.
The West Bay Sediment Diversion was one of the first projects authorized by the Coastal Wetlands Planning Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), overseen by a federal and state task force.
When the $12 million job wraps sometime in the next few weeks, contractor Mike Hooks, Inc. will have dredged approximately 2.9 million cubic yards of material.
Overall, dredging in West Bay has been used to create more than 600 acres of land in the receiving area, according to the Corps.
"This thing is working while we're sleeping," said Earl Armstrong, a local cattle rancher who has championed the project.
In 2003, the Corps cut a hole in the Mississippi River levee to divert 10 percent of the river's flow in an attempt to mimic the land-building powers of the river.
On the surface, not much happened over the next seven years or so, and the project was deemed a failure.
Until the Corps dredged a pair of man-made islands, the channel blew through the diversion at too great a speed to drop much sediment.
The new islands served to slow the river's flow and allow sediment to build up on the surface, a process engineers hope to repeat with the latest round of dredging.
Brad Inman, a Corps project manager, explains three new islands are "going to act as sort of speed bumps."
While the project once seemed destined for closure, the flood of 2011 brought new life for West Bay.
As the river swelled, it deposited millions of cubic yards of sediment, enough for islands to suddenly start popping to the surface.
Today, there are five artificial islands and two "natural" islands in the diversion.
"I don't think anybody can argue against the beneficial use of dredge material," said Sean Duffy of the Big River Coalition, a shipping industry group. "We know it works. It's expensive."
On the other hand, diversions have drawn vocal opposition, most notably from commercial fishermen and charter boat captains who fear polluted fresh river water threatens to ruin fisheries and destroy land.
Louisiana's coastal master plan includes a number of diversions, including a giant structure near Braithwaite capable of pushing 250,000 cubic feet per second of river water into Breton Sound.
Navigation interests have raised their own concerns about river safety.
Duffy asks, "A ship coming down river, meeting other vessels, will they get pulled over a little bit, be able to cruise by?"
The Corps and the state are teaming up in a several-years-long hydrological study to answer those questions and determine the best points on the map to construct future diversions.
Duffy believes computer models will spit out many, but not all, of the answers about the effects of channeling river water into the marsh.