First-of-its-kind project builds Louisiana's newest land

Published: Dec. 12, 2013 at 12:17 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 6, 2014 at 12:20 AM CST
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A pipe delivers sand to a new section of beach in the Caminada Headland (John Snell)
A pipe delivers sand to a new section of beach in the Caminada Headland (John Snell)

FOURCHON BEACH, La. - When Louisiana coastal planners began talking about rebuilding one stretch of beach, Jimmy Carter was president and disco was all the rage.

"We started looking at this in 1976, '77, '78," said Windell Curole, General Manager of the South Lafourche Levee District.

Finally, after all these years, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has teamed with federal agencies to rebuild the Caminada Headland near Port Fourchon.

The $70 million project pieces back together a seven-mile stretch of beach, encompassing 303 acres.

The headland, which includes Fourchon Beach, loses an average 45 feet of beachfront yearly, according to the CPRA.

Kerry St. Pe, Executive Director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, calls the headland, "the fastest-disappearing shoreline in North America."

That poses a threat to wildlife - including migratory birds - and to the human activity at Louisiana's most important oil and gas port, Port Fourchon.

In a first-of-its-kind project, a new beach is delivered long distance.

"This is the first time we've ever mined sand from an offshore, federal shoal," said CPRA Chairman Garret Graves.

Twenty-seven miles offshore, a dredge sucks sand from Ship Shoal, a huge deposit of sand in the Gulf of Mexico estimated to hold up to one billion cubic yards of material.

"We can do extraordinary restoration work all over South Louisiana, particularly in this sediment-starved Barataria-Terrebonne basin," Graves said.

The sand is transported by barge, then pumped the remaining three miles down the beach.

Tapping into Ship Shoal more regularly would involve challenges that go beyond money.

The Gulf surface there is strewn with old oil and gas infrastructure, including abandoned pipelines.

"A lot of sand is there, but it's not available for use yet," St. Pe said.

Beach projects have only so much staying power.

The state's coastal master plan envisions maintenance that would need to take place roughly every 20 years, depending on what kind of bite future hurricanes take out of the Caminada Headland.

"These are largely sacrificial projects," Graves said. "These are not designed to be static environments."

The CPRA estimates that the project, which began in August, should wrap up sometime next spring.