New Land, just add water: Coastal restoration project bears fruit

Land...Just add water
Published: Nov. 21, 2016 at 7:32 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 21, 2016 at 9:50 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Todd Baker jets down a new bayou in one of the most remote spots in Louisiana.

Baker, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, points out a smorgasbord of plant life that each year attracts thousands of birds to the delta near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

"If you're a teal, or a waterfowl of any kind, this is pretty good stuff," Baker said.

Biologists say the feasting has been better in the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area in recent years thanks to a series of projects designed to tap into the land-building powers of the river.

This month, Wildlife and Fisheries marks 30 years of the Pass-a-Loutre Marsh Creation Project, which along with subsequent efforts turned thousands of acres of open bay into wetlands.

Here, ancient parts of the river system break off from the main river channels like arteries feeding into the marsh.

In 1986, the state punched three holes in the bank one of those waterways to siphon sediment-laden river water into a bay.

Those first three cuts, or "crevasses" as they are called, formed approximately 760 acres of new land.

Over the last three decades, Wildlife and Fisheries has tapped into federal money, partnerships with organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and other sources, to build dozens of other crevasses.

On an airboat tour of the WMA, Baker points to one of the success stories over the last 10 years.

"Katrina came through and blew this whole area open," Baker said.

An area of open water following the 2005 hurricane, Baker said the crevasse created there, "has taken sediment and silt-laden river out of South Pass and deposited it here over the last 11 years."

Like other parts of South Louisiana, the Birds Foot Delta was formed during annual floods that belched tons of river mud and sand over the Mississippi River's banks.

"We're basically just trying to duplicate what Mother Nature has done and the river has done for thousands of years with these crevasses," said biologist Lance Campbell.

"This isn't a project that you build and you watch it erode over time," Baker said.  "This is a project that you build and you watch it grow over time."
A crevasse created last fall already bears fruit, as fresh land and vegetation pop to the surface.

"You can actually see from year to year the advances that the crevasse has made," Victoriano said.

All of this takes place at lowest point on the river, where it carries the least amount of sand and dirt.

Coastal scientists and engineers have found the river here has much less land-building potential that at points farther to the north.

"There isn't supposed to be," Baker said, "but as you can see behind us there's plenty of land-building capability in the river this far down."

Once the cut is made, the land comes practically free of charge.

The first of the projects cost $88,000, a bargain by the standards of coastal restoration projects, which often run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Adjusted for inflation, that cost translates into $252.44 per acre, Baker said.

Since Pass-a-Loutre sits near the mouth of the river, there is no huge outcry over these relatively small efforts to divert river water into the system.

Upstream, many commercial and sport fishermen remain skeptical of the state's plans for massive sediment diversion projects.

However, some coastal scientists question projects in the Birds Foot Delta, which is subject to subsidence and relative sea level rise.
"Over the last 30 years or so, these crevasses are building land way faster than the land we're losing," Campbell said.

Copyright 2016 WVUE. All rights reserved.