The race is on to save the ecologically crucial wetlands surrounding the final 160 kilometers of the Mississippi River, America’s most iconic waterway.
“We are losing our communities, our culture, our fisheries, and our first line of defense against the hurricanes that threaten us,” said Kim Reyher, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
Adjacent to New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish is disappearing at an alarming rate. In recent decades, nearly 700 square kilometers of land have been consumed by the Gulf of Mexico because of the devastating combination of sinking land and rising sea levels. The parish includes wetlands that are home to thousands of Louisianans and many species of wildlife deemed critical to the ecology — and economy — of the region.
In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the state’s ambitious $2.2 billion plan to divert sediment from the Mississippi River and, it is hoped, protect and restore the vanishing region, which contributes to Louisiana’s robust seafood and energy sectors.
“The most fortunate thing about the situation we find ourselves in,” Reyher told VOA, “is that we have the tools necessary to build more land by mimicking what the Mississippi River had done for millennia. We can make ourselves safer moving forward.”
That is what this plan hopes to do. But not everyone is convinced.
“They say this is a 50-year plan, but who of us is going to be around in 50 years?” asked Dean Blanchard, owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood in vulnerable Grand Isle, Louisiana, speaking with VOA. “They’ve been trying to build back land for decades and so far I haven’t seen them build enough for two of us to stand on. It just doesn’t work.”
Choking the muddy Mississippi
It wasn’t long ago in geological terms that what is now south Louisiana didn’t exist at all. The region is known as an alluvial delta, built over thousands of years as the country’s major rivers carried sediment from the Rocky Mountains in the west and deposited them into the Gulf of Mexico.
Over time, that process created land stretching from Gulf-facing Plaquemines Parish in the south to areas as far north as Baton Rouge, the state capital. New Orleans, a world-renowned hub of culture and tourism, also owes its existence to this sediment.
“But land down here sinks back into the Gulf unless it’s replenished with new sediment,” Reyher explained. “In the past, that replenishment would come from the seasonal overflowing of the muddy, sediment-rich Mississippi River. But, of course, no one wants to live in a place with annual flooding, so that’s why we built the levees.”
Those levees — barriers largely built in the 20th century on either bank of the river — have helped keep residents safe from river flooding.
But the levees also block the flow of new sediment, making the region more vulnerable to land loss due to erosion and rising sea levels. Ecologists project another 400 square kilometers of land could disappear by the end of the century.
But with the Army Corps’ approval of what is being called the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, some believe there is hope.
“We have been studying this for a very long time,” said Chip Kline, board chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which will be responsible for executing the plan.
“The project will mimic the pre-levee natural land building processes of the Mississippi River and strategically reconnect the river to our sediment-starved estuaries,” he said. “It will establish a consistent sediment source to nourish the newly created land in a way that provides a more sustainable solution than other options such as mechanical dredging.”
Doubt and outrage
The architects of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion believe this is the best available plan. They do, however, concede there will be consequences, particularly for the region’s fishermen, shrimpers and oyster harvesters.
“The water in which our oysters, shrimp and many of our fish thrive is salty,” local shrimper George Barisich told VOA. “So, when you divert all of this fresh Mississippi River water in there, it’s going to kill them. It’s going to destroy those fish populations for years and it’s going to destroy us fishermen.”
Even calling it fresh water, according to Barisich, is misleading.
“This isn’t the same water that traveled down the continent hundreds of years ago,” he said. “This now has pesticides and [feces] from every farm and household along the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) Mississippi River. It’s not going to build our wetlands; it’s going to destroy it.”
Although the project is backed by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, not everyone in state government is enthusiastic.
“I want what’s best for the people of Louisiana,” Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser told VOA, “and this isn’t it. We’ve tried building land his way before and it doesn’t work. The land gets washed away in six months because the Mississippi River doesn’t carry the same amount of sediment it did thousands of — or even a hundred — years ago.”
Reyher, from the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said she’s sympathetic to the concerns fishermen in the region have.
“This is going to impact them, we understand that,” she said. “That’s why we are including $360 million in the plan to assist them and mitigate those consequences.”
She continued: “But, if we do nothing, we’re admitting defeat. We’re talking about whole communities and millions of people that would eventually need to be relocated.”
Lieutenant Governor Nungesser said he also hopes to avoid that outcome. But he also says solutions need to be focused on the short term as well.
“We don’t have to sacrifice people now for some plan that we won’t know doesn’t work until 50 years down the road,” he said. “I’ve been a policymaker here for years, and we know what works. We have seen that specifically building up ridges and islands and berms that protect us from storms — that can keep us safe. And it can do it while protecting the culture and communities around Louisiana’s last surviving sacred resource — our seafood.”
Proponents of the project say the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is the most effective and cost-efficient tool they have — a key component of a 50-year, $50 billion suite of solutions to save south Louisiana.
“Nothing like this has ever been done in the region,” Donald Boesch, professor of marine science at the University of Maryland, told VOA. “This project is designed to capture and distribute sediment during the times of year it is most available. And we can do it in a way that minimizes the water that will kill our fisheries while maximizing the … sediment that will save and re-establish south Louisiana.”
Louisiana must decide by February whether to accept or appeal the Army Corps’ permit conditions. The plan could draw lawsuits from opponents.