Louisiana has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land since 1932. (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority photo)
Humans have long tried to tame the Mississippi River with levees. In the process, they starved many of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands of the sediment that sustains them.
The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, billed as the first project of its kind, seeks to remedy that by replicating those natural land-building processes by reconnecting the basin to the mighty river. The $2.9 billion effort to stave back coastal land loss began construction officially Thursday.
Louisiana has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land since 1932, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The state experiences one of the highest rates of land loss in the world because of factors that include rising seas from climate change, land subsidence and sediment loss.
Once constructed, the 2-mile diversion channel in Plaquemines Parish will funnel freshwater, sediment and nutrients into the mid-Barataria Basin in hopes of building 21 square miles of land.
The project could discharge sediment and water into the basin at a rate as fast as 75,000 cubic feet per second, according to its environmental impact statement. That will total 5 million to 7 million tons of sediment a year.
The deposits are expected to form a delta, with finer particles floating farther out from the source and coarse materials, such as sand, settling closer.
But even with the massive influx of sediment, coastal officials still predict there will be a net loss of land in the area between 2030 and 2070. Still, in the coming decades, an increasing amount of land in the area will likely be credited to the sediment diversion.
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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the project in December. Construction is expected to take more than five years. It will bring $1.5 billion in sales and approximately 12,400 jobs to the region, according to the governor’s office.
It’s an ambitious part of the state’s 50-year, $50-billion plan to restore its creeping coast. Gov. John Bel Edwards, present at the groundbreaking, cheered its start.
“Today will be remembered as a critical turning point for Louisiana’s coast,” he said in a statement. “The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion will restore and rebuild thousands of acres of coastal land and provide better protection to our most vulnerable communities and critical infrastructure.”
The project is the culmination of decades of work, Bren Haase, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said in the statement.
Though the project has its cheerleaders, it also has its opponents.
Some fear the influx of freshwater will impact bottlenose dolphins in the area. The environmental impact statement says the dolphins there will face “immediate and permanent, major, adverse impacts on survival,” and a 2022 study said they’ll become “functionally extinct.”
The sediment diversion received $2.26 billion from the board that controls the BP oil spill settlement funds. A $378 million chunk of that will go toward mitigating the project’s negative impacts, including its effects on dolphins.
Among the most vocal opponents are shrimpers and oyster harvesters in the area, who expect the project to upend their livelihoods.
Many shrimpers in the state already find themselves in dire times, partially because of the unfettered sale of foreign shrimp.
Brian Lezina, a CPRA administrator, said the authority is moving $2 million forward immediately to support outreach and marketing for the shrimping industry. He announced the plan earlier this month at a meeting of the state’s shrimp task force, saying the industry is in a “state of emergency.”
“The intent of this money was obviously to address impacts from the sediment diversion in Barataria Bay,” Lezina said, “but I think we all realize that seven years from now, we may not have an industry in Barataria Basin.”
Acy Cooper, chairman of the task force, said the group was “definitely on board” with the money being spent now in support of the industry.
“We’re not gonna be here seven years from now, the way it’s going,” he said. “We’re not gonna be here next year, the way it is going now.”
Barry Rogers, a shrimper from Houma, said the money didn’t change his view of the sediment diversion.
“As a fisherman, I’m adamantly against it, no matter how much money you come up with,” he said. “I think it’s full of it, to be polite.”
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