Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion would produce 43M metric tonnes of sediment in 10 years, Water Institute CEO says

The head of the Water Institute of the Gulf today detailed the expected impact of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a mammoth $1.4 billion project that would divert Mississippi River water at an unprecedented scale to stem coastal land loss.

Justin Ehrenwerth, who has served as president and CEO of the Water Institute since January, said the diversion will produce 43 million metric tonnes of sediment in the first 10 years. 

Ehrenwerth, the guest speaker at the Press Club of Baton Rouge’s noon luncheon, said neither he nor the Water Institute take positions on policy decisions. Instead, they provide analysis to policymakers. For instance, the institute conducted a study last year that found the cost of rebuilding marshland per acre doubles over 20 years. Similarly, the nonprofit found the Mid-Barataria would likely succeed in the task of replenishing wetlands.

But there are policy tradeoffs associated with the project. For instance, Ehrenwerth noted, it will almost certainly alter the salinity levels of the region, impacting oysters and other wildlife. It is also hung up in a lengthy permitting process that officials estimate will not be completed until 2022, and costs about as much as the “fiscal cliff” the state Legislature is currently facing.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Ehrenwerth said.

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is part of the state’s master plan for the coast, which was updated this year to reflect even more dire consequences than initially expected. If fully funded, the plan would cost around $50 billion for 120 projects over the next several decades.

Ehrenwerth noted the impacts of coastal erosion extend beyond simply wildlife of the wetlands. Coastal communities rely on marshes for protections from storms, and local economies could be decimated if ports like Port Fourchon, which is considering a dredging project, are seriously damaged.

LSU researchers earlier this year found the economies of places further inland like Baton Rouge have billions at stake if nothing is done to slow down the land loss crisis. The decimation of coastal economies would create a ripple effect through the sprawling inland waterways that carry goods, and there could be auxiliary consequences of increased storm damage.

The problem is so severe that the Water Institute has become an expert source for land loss issues in countries throughout the world. The institute late last year announced it was taking its research overseas to countries like Chile and Fiji to collaborate and share research.

Ehrenwerth said today the partnership is up and running, with staffers from the institute visiting several countries to share research for issues similar to Louisiana’s coastal crisis.

“Our issues are not unique,” he said. “There are other parts of the world with the same ecological stressors as we face here.”

Read a recent Business Report cover story about regulatory and financing issues slowing down major coastal restoration projects.

—Sam Karlin

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