H ACKBERRY — The muck that dredge boats scraped off the bottom of the Calcasieu Ship Channel had for years been dumped in big piles along the water’s edge.
A few miles away, the marshes of Cameron Parish were dying as the waves and tides washed away more land each year.
Somewhere along the line, someone had an idea: Why not take all of the sediment being pulled from the ship channel to maintain its depth for ship traffic and use it to rebuild the wetlands?
A joint state and federal project to do just that is entering its final phase at the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish, where conservative estimates project the restoration of about 1,420 acres of marsh, according to figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s got the consistency of Jell-O pudding,” said James LaFleur, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, describing the muck flowing from the pipe into the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge during a tour of the project last week.
A dredger boat pulls the sediment off the bottom of the ship channel, then pumps it through a few miles of pipe into nearby areas of open water that were once-thriving wetlands.
The muck spreads out from the end of the pipe into large areas sectioned off with levees, where it slowly firms up as the water flows off and evaporates.
“The next thing you know, you have a land mass out there,” LaFleur said.
If everything goes as planned, smooth cordgrass and other marsh plants will begin taking root as tides spread seed over the newly formed land, which gradually will resume its role as a healthy habitat for fish and wildlife.
The goal of the Sabine Refuge Marsh Creation Project is to restore some of the tens of thousands of acres of southwest Louisiana marsh lost to open water.
The main culprit has been saltwater intrusion — waves and tides pushing farther into the marsh, killing off the vegetation and eating away at the land.
“You lose grass and the root structure, then you get a periodic blast from a hurricane and it pushes more salt water in here,” said Trey Horne, a project manager with the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
The first phase of the restoration project was finished in 2002, and the project is now entering the final phase authorized for funding.
Earlier phases created some 523 acres of marsh, and the work now underway is projected to create at least another 897 acres, said Darryl Clark, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Clark said the figure for the current project — 897 acres — represents the restoration of more than 8 percent of Louisiana’s total estimated land loss of 10,000 acres a year.
“If we had 10 of these projects, we would have almost no net land loss for this year,” he said.
But the work is expensive.
The current phase of the restoration project in the Sabine refuge is estimated at $10.3 million for construction and long-term monitoring, a figure that doesn’t include the cost of dredging, which the Corps would be doing regardless of whether the spoil was used for marsh creation.
Clark said using dredge material from the ship channel is cheaper than similar projects where the material has been dredged solely for the purpose of using it to build land.
“This is one of the most cost-effective ways to restore marsh,” Clark said.
Although there is no funding in the near future for additional marsh creation projects in the Sabine refuge using dredge from the ship channel, Clark said any future projects could take advantage of a permanent pipeline now running from the channel into the marsh.
“We still have a lot of room to do more restoration,” he said.