Issues related to coastal land loss and restoration efforts generally tend to elicit a ho-hum around here.
People know they should care, but losing a football field of coastline every 30 minutes just doesn’t seem as significant as it should when you’re 150 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Consequently, the growing chorus of complaints from fishermen and elected officials on the Mississippi Gulf Coast over Louisiana’s coastal restoration plans hasn’t generated much interest around here.
It’s time to start paying attention.
Louisiana’s neighbors in Mississippi, as well as many of this state’s own commercial fishermen, are sounding the alarm bell over the large-scale sediment diversion projects intended to help restore coastal marshland.
Specifically, they’re upset about the $1.4 billion Mid-Breton Basin sediment diversion, which promises to rebuild marshland by
diverting fresh, though polluted, Mississippi River water into coastal wetlands, where it will
deposit sediment that will naturally build up.
The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has made sediment diversions the centerpiece of its multipronged coastal master plan, and acknowledges that while diversions won’t solve all our problems, they’re our best hope for rebuilding at least some of our rapidly depleting coast.
From the perspective of fishermen and Mississippi coastal communities, however, these projects are nothing but multibillion-dollar science experiments that may well do more harm than good.
Their fears are based on what happened to coastal fisheries when the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened this past summer for the third time in two years, decimating oyster beds, killing shrimp, dolphins and sea turtles, and causing the oxygen-starved Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico to balloon to the size of Connecticut.
“There’s no precedent for what’s currently happening in the Mississippi watershed,” Joe Jewell, directory of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, reportedly told the Biloxi Sun Herald in September.
In October, the Hancock County Board of Supervisors and the Bay St. Louis City Council passed resolutions opposing the Mid-Breton project. Their measure calls on Mississippi’s governor and congressional delegation to oppose the project and the issuance of federal permits needed for its construction.
Harrison County followed suit a couple of weeks later. More significantly, Mississippi’s attorney general put the U.S Army Corps of Engineers on notice in late October that his state will sue for damages related to the spillway opening.
Closer to home, Louisiana’s commercial fishermen are waging a grassroots and social media campaign aimed at calling attention to the matter. The Gulf Coast Resource Coalition is circulating an ad depicting a mouth-watering plate of grilled oysters below a quote attributed to Mitch Jurisich, chair of the Louisiana Oyster Coalition. It reads: “Love grilled oysters? Sorry … Louisiana’s river diversion projects will kill them all.”
The CPRA says it is aware of the concerns and obviously doesn’t want to do anything to harm coastal fisheries. But CPRA Executive Director Bren Haase also says it’s inaccurate to compare the spillway opening, which let loose river water at a flow rate of 215,000 cubic feet per second, with a sediment diversion like the Mid-Breton, which will flow at a rate of 75,000 cubic feet per second.
What’s more, he says, it will take at least five years before the project is permitted and it must first undergo a rigorous environmental impact study. He adds that Mississippi is represented on the CPRA board and is supportive of Louisiana’s coastal master plan.
For now, at least.
But those raising concerns are not fringe environmentalists or conspiracy theorists that can be waved away. They’re government officials in a neighboring state and commercial fishermen, who make their living in one of Louisiana’s most important industries. How long can they be ignored? Will their complaints delay or derail the diversion projects? If so, would that be a bad thing?
The questions are worth asking, because much uncertainty surrounds these really large-scale investments. On one hand, science suggests diversions are the best way to restore at least some coastal marshland. On the other hand, we don’t really know how
effective they will be long term and what kind of collateral damage they will cause in the process.
Are they worth the billions they will cost? Or would it make more sense to invest our considerable BP settlement largesse in more modest, smaller scale projects like backfilling canals and shoreline stabilization protection?
“This stuff has a ton of uncertainty,” says Bob Jacobsen, an environmental engineer. “If you want to have a big impact on reversing delta loss, it sounds like a good idea. But everybody is focused on moving mud around and is losing sight of the fact that the goal is to have an impact on our ecological resources—and we are not listening to the people who best understand our ecological resources.”
There are no simple answers. The CPRA and its scientists have put together a comprehensive master plan they legitimately believe is in the state’s best interest.
Now, those plans are being seriously challenged, whether rightly or not. You can bet the Corps will not ignore the challenges as it goes about preparing its environmental assessment of these diversions. Whatever the outcome, it will have implications for all of Louisiana and its future.
It’s time for Baton Rouge to start paying attention.