A decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to send more water into the Atchafalaya Basin could be a boon for crawfishermen, and some state officials are hoping it’s a sign the federal agency might be more open to future requests to manage water levels in the massive swamp.
The extra water now flowing through basin will breathe new life into what has been a sluggish crawfish season, said Sherbin Collette, a longtime fishermen who serves as mayor of the town of Henderson on the edge of the basin.
“It probably saved the crawfish season,” Collette said. “Without that, the crawfish season could have ended pretty soon in the Atchafalaya Basin.”
The Atchafalaya River begins near Simmesport, drawing its water from the Red River and the Mississippi River, and the corps regulates how much of the Mississippi flows into the Atchafalaya by opening and closing floodgates at the Old River Control Structure near Simmesport.
The idea is to prevent the Mississippi from changing course and taking a shorter path to the Gulf of Mexico down the Atchafalaya. By federal law, the corps is required to maintain the flow of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya at 30 percent of the Mississippi at that juncture.
But the corps is allowed to temporarily let more or less water pass, and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office last week announced that the federal agency agreed to increase the water flow to the Atchafalaya by at least 3 percent for 15 days and possibly up to 30 days.
The corps denied a similar request from the state last year, and the last time a deviation at Old River was approved to help basin water quality was in 2004, according to figures from the agency.
“It is certainly infrequent,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
He said the hope is the state can begin working with the corps for more flexibility in managing the water flows at Old River.
“We’ve got to get out of this mind set that everything is so static,” Graves said. “You need to be more dynamic about managing these water resources.”
There have been ongoing discussions among government agencies and conservation groups about allowing more or less water down the Atchafalaya at different times of the year to either improve water quality in the basin or to harness the sediment-laden river water for coastal restoration projects.
Graves said the decision by the corps this year to allow more water into the basin will offer on opportunity to study the impacts of changes at the Old River Control Structure.
“Otherwise, we are relying on computer models to predict what happens, but this is the real deal. This gives us data we need to help us understand how these river systems react to more water or less water,” Graves said.
Still, any consideration for major changes at the Old River Control Structure could be years off.
The federal Water Resources Development Act of 2007 called on the corps to study possible changes in the operation of the control structure, but corps spokesman Bob Anderson said no money has been identified for the study.
But Anderson said the corps will continue to consider state requests for sending more water down the Atchafalaya, deciding each case based on criteria that include water levels in the basin and how the diversion might affect power generation at the Sidney A. Murray Jr. Hydroelectric Station, near Vidalia. The station depends on the head difference between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to produce electricity.
Allowing more water to flow down the Atchafalaya could decrease the head difference.
Anderson said the corps denied the state’s request for more water in the basin last year because the water level was already too low in the swamp for additional water to make any difference.
The request for more water this year was more a proactive measure to keep water levels from dropping too low.
“If we can load up the basin now, it can prevent some of those water quality problems later in the year,” Graves said.
Basin crawfisherman Jody Meche said the additional water from the Mississippi will not likely push up the water in the basin but does seem to be holding the level steady.
“Hopefully, we are going to have a good productive season in the basin, but it’s going to be a late season,” he said.