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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

Losing Ground

Wetland’s demise ripples across nation

Above: Alex Plaisance, whose company is fighting to save 35,000 acres of marsh it manages, and his wife move rocks to help slow a "waterbreak" he found on a bulkhead while touring the Lac d'Isle marsh management system June 14. Jim Hudelson/The (Shreveport, La.) Times

Louisiana restoration depends on Mississippi River

By DENNIS CAMIRE
Gannett News Service

NEW ORLEANS — Only one thing can fight off the Gulf of Mexico’s appetite for Louisiana’s coastal wetlands — releasing the mighty power of the Mississippi River that created them.

That is a big part of a massive Army Corps of Engineers plan to stop the loss of the state’s swamps and marshes now vanishing at the rate of an acre nearly every half hour.

“We need a lot of muddy freshwater to stop it,” said Enrique Reyes, an assistant professor of environmental management at the University of New Orleans who is working on the plan.

The Mississippi River has changed course seven times in the last 6,000 years to create and sustain most of the state’s wetlands, Reyes said. But levees built for flood protection now direct the river into a narrow channel and shoot its marsh-building sediment over the continental shelf.

``The analogy would be a hose laying on your lawn. If you open the water, you’re going to see that thing snaking all over the place,’’ Reyes said. ``That’s what the Mississippi wants to do and we have decided to not let it do that.’’

This fall, the Corps of Engineers will release its initial plan to remedy the situation, which some say it helped create. The state hopes to present the final plan to Congress by the middle of next year for its approval and, hopefully, money.

The $14 billion Louisiana wetlands plan dwarfs the $8 billion restoration effort under way for the Florida Everglades in both cost and complexity, said Jim Tripp, general counsel for the conservation group Environmental Defense.

“This is one of the largest undertakings in the nation,’’ said John Saia at the Corps' New Orleans District office.

An important part of the plan is a 60-mile-long channel to divert up to 200,000 cubic feet a second of Mississippi River water, nutrients and mud to the Barataria-Terrebonne area of the central coast. The area’s coastal system is in danger of collapsing because of the lack of new sediment and the natural sinking of the land as sediment compacts.

The channel would split into two branches and build new deltas on either side of Bayou Lafourche.

Scientists are considering at least 15 other Mississippi and Atchafalaya river diversions to build deltas south of New Orleans and nourish marshes no longer able to maintain themselves.

Scientists also are examining the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet navigation channel, a 36-foot deep, 76-mile-long shortcut for shipping between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The canal, built in the early 1960s, is blamed for increasing erosion and allowing greater storm surges upstream.

Overall, the plan is looking at dozens of projects to improve water circulation in the wetlands, including closing some oil and gas pipeline canals and little-used navigation canals and installing locks at channels’ mouths to keep out saltwater. Other projects would use dredged material to create marshes and restore and maintain barrier islands.

Even though support is building for the effort, skepticism abounds both inside and outside Louisiana about the state’s commitment to the plan, the Corps’ involvement and legal problems already developing.

Oystermen whose beds were destroyed by an earlier small freshwater diversion from the Mississippi won a $2 billion judgment this year. While it appeals, the state is seeking voter approval this fall for a constitutional amendment to limit liability from coastal restoration projects.

Gov. Mike Foster, who is in his final year in office, said he believes his successor will continue pressing the issue he has spearheaded.

“Most of the gubernatorial candidates understand this issue and I think it has a life of its own,” Foster said. “You can’t ignore it.”

Environmental and conservation groups eye the corps’ involvement in the restoration effort warily because it built many of the projects they believe helped cause the problem in the first place.

“You know, to them in some respects, we are the devil incarnate. Why would you want to do business with the devil?” said Fred Caver, deputy director of civil works for the Corps of Engineers.

Caver said he and others have told the groups that if they want to change the way the corps does business, then find common goals on which everyone can collaborate.

“This, some of them have begun to believe, is such an opportunity,” he said.

The new plan isn’t the first attempt to do something about Louisiana’s coastal land loss.

Since 1986, the state along with the federal and parish governments has authorized 461 restoration projects. Despite spending about $413 million so far, all the projects when competed would protect only 216 square miles, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, some individuals have been taking matters into their own hands.

Alex Plaisance is fighting a losing battle to keep out saltwater and slow down tidal action that threaten the 35,000 acres of marsh his company manages along Bayou Lafourche. He uses stone weirs to regulate the tide’s speed through the canals and bayous so it doesn’t wash away marsh soil and uses pipes with one-way flaps to stop saltwater intrusion but allow fresh water to flow.

Navigating his boat through the marsh recently to check on the water control structures, Plaisance and his wife, Marlene, sprung into action to toss rock into an eroded spot where the incoming tide was rushing through, tearing out a canal’s bank.

Plaisance is president of Restore or Retreat, a group advocating freshwater diversions from the Mississippi River to help the marshes.

To ultimately succeed, the gulf must be met by a superior force and the Mississippi is the only thing that can do it, Plaisance said.

“Otherwise,” he said, “the only thing people of Louisiana can do is pool their resources and then we'll be able to buy Arkansas.”