VENICE — Until recently, companies that rely on a navigable lower Mississippi River have considered their input on coastal restoration project planning to be largely ignored despite their economic importance to the state and nation.
Although their relationship with planners has improved over time, particularly in the past few years, those company officials still want a bigger place at the table on coastal restoration projects.
“I think it comes down to more communication with navigation (companies),” said Sean Duffy, Big River Coalition executive director.
The coalition representing those concerns was formed in 2011 to get more money for river dredging to add to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget, get the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dedicated to dredging, and to represent Mississippi River navigation in coastal restoration issues.
“I’d say it’s better,” Duffy said about navigation involvement.
He pointed out that the state’s main coastal board favored the navigation industry’s attempt to get the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money spent on dredging instead of having it diverted to other federal uses.
However, he said, the relationship still needs work, making note of projects submitted for funding under Deepwater Horizon fine money.
“Two were specific to the river,” he said.
Getting navigation involved early in project development, as has been the case with some coastal projects, helps prevent problems and opposition down the road.
“(The state) understands that navigation is important, but they don’t understand the issues,” said Capt. Mike Miller, vice president of the Associated Branch Pilots.
Capt. Michael R. Lorino Jr., president of the Associated Branch Pilots, said companies involved in the navigation industry have always been in favor of coastal restoration because their workers have witnessed the disappearance of land over the years.
“I went down the river in 1973 as an apprentice and since that time the trees and the marsh and areas along the … delta, the trees and the land have constantly washed away,” Lorino said.
Although it hasn’t always been the case, Lorino said, the navigation industry has been much more included in coastal restoration discussions in the last three years.
“Yes, I would definitely say today our voices are being heard,” he said. “I think it’s a better give and take.”
An example is the design competition called Changing Course — designed to look at possibilities of realigning the channel of the lower river to match up with river sediment diversions. The goal is to improve navigation, reduce the amount of dredging needed and add to coastal land-building.
Lorino said some of the discussions don’t reflect the reality of the river, such as suggestions to shut the river down for months at a time for a certain project.
“It’s very difficult for me to deal with people from other states who know nothing about the Mississippi River system and say, ‘Let’s change the course,’ ” he said. “The Mississippi River and ports along the Mississippi River to the mouth, it’s the largest port system in the United States.”
Jerome Zeringue, the governor’s executive assistant for coastal activities and chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said communication has improved and more is being done as work continues on the 2017 master plan.
However, involvement doesn’t always mean the state will agree with the opinions of interested groups, he added. The state’s mission, Zeringue said, is to try to minimize negative impacts from coastal restoration work to include all groups that use Louisiana’s waterways and wetlands.
What the Associated Branch Pilots, who navigate ships from the mouth of the river to Venice, want to see is the state more involved in helping pay for the movement of river-dredged material into the marsh areas adjacent to the river banks on the lower river.
Many areas in the lower river along the navigation channel of Southwest Pass are just slivers of land, and it won’t take much of a storm to wash those banks away and even endanger the channel itself.
“We don’t have a lot here, but how hard would it be to keep what’s here,” Miller said.
Without stabilizing the banks, there’s nothing to stop shifting sediments along the coastline from coming in and shoaling up areas of the navigation channel, Miller said.
“If we lose one section of this river down here, the entire river is affected,” said Tim Osborn, navigation manager with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Central Gulf Region. “One storm down here could literally cause that whole thing to stop.”
The state has maintained that placing material along the river channel for stability is something the Corps should do as part of channel maintenance. In addition, building marsh is much more sustainable in areas upriver where mined river sediment can be pumped through pipelines to create marsh. One of those areas is in Bayou Dupont in Plaquemines Parish, which is a good project, but doesn’t protect an economic driver like the lower river does, Duffy said.
“How many billions is the industry around Bayou Dupont bringing in,” Duffy said of the relatively isolated area in the middle of Plaquemines Parish. “We think we should look more at protecting the channel.”
The state’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection doesn’t include any projects south of Venice along the river in Plaquemines Parish. This area also is known as the “bird’s-foot delta” because it resembles a bird’s footprint. The delta includes the main navigation channel of Southwest Pass.
State officials decided not to prioritize funding in that area because any marsh creation won’t last as long as it will upstream.
“I’m not saying we wrote off the bird’s-foot delta,” Zeringue said. “There is no plan of how we can achieve stability of that lower delta. It’s part of the natural process that it is going to be lost.”
The state struggles to find money to do the work it is required to do without stepping in and taking over federal responsibilities, he said.
In addition, rising sea levels and erosion will cause the loss of land over time, and there are other areas of the coast that can be stabilized.
“It doesn’t make sense to put money there,” Zeringue said of the lower delta. “Putting material there is not in the state’s best interest.”
The navigation industry is important to the state, Zeringue said, but there are other groups that have a stake in the coastal restoration goals.
“We can’t construct projects solely to protect navigation,” he said.
The Corps is placing dredged material along the upper part of this delta at Southwest Pass, but they’re running out of room. Sediment has built up enough on the east side of the river that a pipe has had to be put under the river to start pumping to the west side, Duffy said. Part of the problem is that some agencies want land built to an elevation of no more than two feet to make sure the land stays marshy.
Duffy said even if it’s built up much higher than that, the land will sink or erode enough to become marsh in time. So far, he said, the answer has been no to building up higher.
“We’re trying to restore a wetlands area that’s eaten up with cancer,” Duffy said.
Over the past five years, he said, dredging along the lower river has been placed to build about 3,500 acres — an average of about 700 a year.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.