On Oct. 4, six airboats pulled up to what looked like a small barrier island to the west of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish.
Although the plant-covered, muddy island appears no different than the surrounding marsh, it was the showpiece destination that day for a contingent of state and federal officials.
The land, located just north of a freshwater diversion project built in 2003, wasn’t there last year.
This visit was the latest attempt to get the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Task Force to reconsider the decision to close the West Bay Diversion project because of impacts on river navigation.
The issue of closing the diversion project comes down to money and compromise. Unless a solution is found, the closure bodes ill for the number of future river diversions designed to restore the state’s fragile coastal lands.
Although diversions are not the only restoration tool, they are a large part of the state’s coastal restoration effort and there are a number of diversions currently included in the state’s plan for coastal restoration.
Built in 2003, the West Bay Diversion consists of a dredged break in the natural levee located south of Venice in Plaquemines Parish. The project allows a portion of the freshwater, and some sediment, from the river to flow into a shallow bay with the hopes of building land.
“You can actually see land come up before your eyes,” said P.J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management with Plaquemines Parish.
The project wasn’t anticipated to build land above the water line immediately.
Scientists and state and federal officials pointed to the Wax Lake Outlet in southwest Louisiana as a model for what they expected. Although the outlet from the Atchafalaya River was built in 1942 to prevent flooding in Morgan City, in 1973 land started appearing above the water line in the delta, according to information from The Northern Gulf Institute at LSU.
The goal of diverting water and sediment from the Mississippi River is to build land in a similar manner in southeast Louisiana.
Diversions, however, can also cause induced shoaling in the river — a piling up of sediment that can affect navigation — and so far, it’s been the federal position that the dredging of induced shoaling needs to be funded from restoration project money.
This additional cost to a coastal restoration project — and an agreement signed before construction started — is the reason the West Bay Diversion is slated for closure.
The agreement between the state and the Corps of Engineers to build West Bay Diversion included a section that the CWPPRA program and the state would be responsible for dredging shoaling caused by the project in the nearby Pilottown Anchorage used by ship traffic.
Although preliminary studies by the corps rated the diversion’s contribution to the shoaling at between 20 and 40 percent, there’s enough uncertainty that the fallback has been for the CWPPRA program to pay the entire dredging cost, said Jerome Zeringue, executive director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s implementation office.
So far, $31 million has been spent on the West Bay Diversion project. That amount covers the cost of real estate, construction, engineering, design, monitoring, and operations and maintenance, which includes the dredging of the Pilottown anchorage area.
The anchorage area has been dredged twice thus far — at a cost of $7 million in 2006 and $11 million in 2009.
Closing the diversion will also be an expense. The three preliminary alternatives range from $10 million to $20 million, said Rachel Rodi, a corps spokeswoman.
The task force decided in January 2010 to begin the process of closing the diversion because the program didn’t have enough money to continue dredging the anchorage.
The corps maintains it doesn’t have congressional authorization to dredge the anchorage, Zeringue said.
The state believes that if sediment is being taken out of the river through the diversion — the way it’s supposed to — then the corps will have reduced dredging elsewhere, Zeringue said.
“We do need to get past this issue,” Zeringue said.
Tom Holden, deputy district engineer for project management with the corps’ New Orleans district, said current law mandates that in cases where a new project affects an older project, the remedy must be paid for by the new project.
With the West Bay project, the agreement to build the diversion project anticipated shoaling not only in the anchorage but also in the navigation channel.
The navigation channel shoaling has been taken care of by the corps, Holden said, but the corps isn’t authorized to dredge in the anchorage area.
“The state believes we’re being overly conservative,” Holden said.
Two upcoming reports should provide more information about the project. The first will be a state survey of the West Bay area to determine if the land near the diversion is new land, or if the recent land building is the result of sediment moving around in the currents, or if it’s dirt from the spot where the river scoured a deep hole near where the levee was cut.
Also, a report the corps is expected to release in January will examine just how much of the induced shoaling at the anchorage is due to the diversion, Holden said.
There are other ways to address the induced shoaling and dredging issue. For example, for an upcoming diversion project at Myrtle Grove in Plaquemines Parish, it’s possible that dirt dredged from any shoaling in the navigation channel could be used to build land in the project area, Holden said.
That’s what the corps has done with the sediment dredged from the Pilottown Anchorage, and Holden said that helped build 600 acres in the West Bay area.
Sean Duffy Sr., maritime advocate with the Mississippi River Maritime Association, said the navigation industry has asked Congress to authorize the corps to take on the anchorage dredging. That authorization needs to come with funding, he said, because the corps is struggling to find money to keep the navigation channel itself dredged to the authorized depths.
There is funding in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, Duffy said, noting he and others are working to get Congress to release those funds for the river work.
The fund had a balance of $5.6 billion by the end of fiscal year 2010, according to a July 1 briefing memo to the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on water resources and environment. However, because the trust fund is not separate from the general fund, “all surplus funds have, in effect, already been spent by the federal government,” the memo says.
The trust fund money comes from user fees collected from shippers, according to the memo.
Duffy said he’d like to see river diversions continue, but there has to be a way to accommodate the needs of the navigation industry.
“We want to see the mud out of the river,” Duffy said, noting that as someone who kayaks in south Louisiana, he’s seen the land loss over the years and realizes the importance of coastal restoration work.
“We want to see diversions work,” he said.
That was the prevalent sentiment among the federal and state representatives who made the site visit in early October.
“Everybody knows we want to keep it open, but we don’t have the money,” said Albertine Kimble, coastal program manager with Plaquemines Parish.
Millions of dollars are spent to pipe sediment from the river for other marsh-creation projects, she said, but this one built itself.
“This year, the sand was free,” she said.
Members of the CWPPRA task force said they’d like to see the diversion kept open, but the dredging funding issue is an impediment.
The CWPPRA program can’t afford the estimated $15 million every three years to keep the anchorage dredged, said Rick Hartman, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official and member of the task force. “You’ve got to get the Pilottown anchorage onto the corps’ dredging (schedule).”
The process needs to start with Louisiana’s congressional delegation making this issue a priority, Hartman said.
There is time to work out a solution: the closure planning is going on now and is about a year and a half away from being completed, Hartman said.
Hahn, the Plaquemines Parish coastal zone management director, says the issue is one of national interest.
He noted that the levees built along the Mississippi River, which allow for navigation on the river and protect people from flooding, have been major factor in wetland loss.
Just as the nation gets the benefit from the river navigation, Louisiana has lost coastal land because the river no longer overflows during floods. The overflows helped build the coastal wetlands in the first place.
“At some point the light bulb has to go off with the public,” Hahn said.
In addition, he said, what kind of message does it send to Congress about future requests for diversion funding if the West Bay Diversion is closed?
“We’ve got to start getting our priorities straight,” Hahn said.