Deep down in the Maurepas Swamp, engineers are working to correct an ecological disaster decades in the making.
Left unchecked, the swamp will disappear within a lifetime.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the Amite River Diversion Canal in the 1950s to prevent flooding during times of high water. Beginning downstream of French Settlement, the canal flows along the Livingston-Ascension parish line depositing water from the Amite into the Blind River before emptying into Lake Maurepas.
However, the Corps took the soil displaced from digging the canal and piled it along the banks, explained Jason Curole, a project manager for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
So now water doesn't flood the wetlands from the river, and it can't overtop the unintentional earthen dikes built along the canal. The result is that the old cypress swamp is starved for nutrients found in the river water.
The cypresses are "stressed out," right now, and they'll die if the problem isn't addressed, Curole said. And with the trees goes the entire ecosystem.
"(The walls of soil have) disrupted the natural hydrology of the adjacent swamp," according to a recent CPRA report.
"This impoundment has caused degradation of the swamp, and without this project, existing habitat will convert to open water within 50 years."
The project intended to address the problem involves plowing through the embankments on state Wildlife and Fisheries property to form a trio of channels where water can flow out. Then, authorities will go in and replant the swamp to "jump start" ecological recovery, according to the report.
The construction will cost about $736,000, and the planting will likely come in around $1 million, Curole said. All told, the Coastal Authority expects the project will help rejuvenate approximately 1,600 acres of swamp land.
Work on the channels began in September and is expected to conclude in December.
The canal flooding is not the only man-made problem on the Amite River, however. The canal and river are separated by a weir, a sort of underground wall intended to funnel most river water down the Amite but allow for excess to continue down the canal.
However, the weir has eroded over the years, and now most of the stream is flowing into the canal, meaning the Amite is drying up, losing oxygen and building up sediment — a worrying concern for fish, plant life and boaters.
A man-made canal is draining the Amite River dry, and to save it, officials will have to red…
Last year, various government organizations commissioned a study to examine their options, but now plans are on hold. Then, as now, there are problems identifying a funding source, said Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission.
After the August floods, his agency is focusing all its political capital on the construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal, which many experts believe could have lessened the damage if it had been in place.
The existing weir is basically formed of piled rocks, and Rietschier said the new version may have to employ a different design, because the underwater soil is soft, and a weir could sink under its own weight.
"It's not as simple as taking a bunch of rocks and dumping them on there," he said.