‘Accidental’ rebuilding of Wax Lake Delta shows promise of diversion projects _lowres

2014 Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- The beginnings of land restoration, left, at the Wax Lake Delta. As restoration projects from the State Master Plan are developed, researched and implemented, experts from the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, partner organizations, and agency representatives give an overview on a boat trip in the Louisiana marsh of wildlife and habitat flourishing as the result of a river diversion. Newly built coastal wetlands are providing habitat for fisheries and wildlife. The Wax Lake Delta has been emerging since 1941 when the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Wax Lake Outlet to alleviate the risk of flooding in nearby Morgan City. The construction of this cut allows river water to exit Six-Mile Lake and flow directly to the Atchafalaya Bay. An unintended consequence of this action is the emergence of the Wax Lake Delta, including newly built marshes and habitat for fisheries and wildlife. Several river diversions are proposed along the Lower Mississippi River, but many questions remain concerning fisheries and wildlife. The Wax Lake Delta provides a unique opportunity to study a prograding delta, which may help us understand how land building and ecological succession may occur for those river diversions.

Louisiana residents who worry about the health of their rivers, aquifers being drawn down to unsafe levels and infrastructure that protects some people from rising waters at the expense of their neighbors aren’t alone. Those living in many cities around the world struggle with the same issues.

From Mexico City to Paris, cities face similar water woes as cities and towns in Louisiana. Experts shared stories about the experiences of some of those communities Thursday during the final day of the Ten Across Conference, also known as 10X.

The conference is a new coalition of cities located on Interstate 10. They met in Baton Rouge this week to discuss water management and invited some international communities to weigh in as well.

The Dutch are often praised for their water infrastructure. They've had some time to install a workable system; the country committed to vigorously addressing the matter after a devastating flood back in 1953, explained civil engineer Karel Heynert, of the firm Deltares. 

He called specific attention to the city of Nijmegen on the river Waal. After a bad flood in the 1990s, officials decided they simply could not keep building the levees higher, so they relocated their dikes, dug a new channel and took other steps to let the Waal widen out to give the water more space. Some members of the public were upset that valuable land was being lost for development, but Heynert saw it another way:

"You can build houses somewhere else. You cannot put the river somewhere else," he said.

In contrast, Paris Chief Resiliency Officer Sébastien Maire said, the French were always sure they'd eventually figure out how to prevent flooding in the future and just kept kicking the can down the road.

But now the future is here, and it's not filled with flying cars, but rather with flooded ones like the one he projected on a screen behind him. In the past, cities competed — dikes would be built higher in richer cities, flooding their downstream neighbors.

Now, France is trying to marshal all of its communities to work together, Maire said. They're also taking steps like using permeable pavements on public buildings like schools so stormwater can better drain where it lands rather than running off.

Perhaps their most audacious goal is an attempt to clean up the river Seine so it is swimmable in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Maire showed an old black and white photo of swimmers enjoying a dip in the river that runs through Paris, and the city hopes the project will be a public demonstration that water management is possible and for the public good.

Back in the western hemisphere, Mexico City's population exploded from 8.8 million to more than 20 million between 1980 and 2010, and the number continues to rise, said Arnoldo Matus Kramer, the city's chief resilience officer.

Now, authorities worry about overdrawing the aquifer and making sure the poor have equal access. Water is so vital, access has become an issue of social justice and national security, he said. The city is taking steps, like working on a water trust with private industries, universities and international investors that intends to give more universal water access and promote green infrastructure.

Back in the U.S., authorities spoke of problems like those with the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida, which has been dredged and straightened to allow for ship traffic, but that's hurt fisheries, allowed saltwater intrusion and put property owners at greater flood risk, said Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman.

Other I-10 cities emphasized measures like building bayou-side parks that can flood in a storm, such as those in Houston, to integrate flood-control measures into useful parts of the city. Other communities discussed issues less common in Louisiana, which doesn't have to coordinate efforts with Mexico, as they do in El Paso, or worry about an earthquake destroying pipes, as in Los Angeles.

The inaugural 10X conference, which was held this year on the Water Campus, will be in Phoenix next April. Organizers have said the cities may tackle other issues such as trade or immigration.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.