The Trump administration has followed through on a promise to expedite federal permitting for a critical coastal restoration project, shaving about two years off the timeline for the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion.

The diversion will shunt freshwater, sediment and nutrients from the Mississippi River into the Barataria Basin in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes. When fully operational, it will be able to carry 75,000 cubic feet of sediment-laden water per second.

Doing so will help rebuild land that has disappeared over the past century. The diversion is a massive project with an estimated $1.4 billion price tag, to be funded using money from the Deepwater Horizon settlement.

Louisiana politicians have lobbied furiously to expedite the permitting process to build Mid-Barataria before more land is lost. In December, they welcomed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to Louisiana. He publicly vowed to slash red tape to get the project completed, saying the protection of Louisiana's coast is a national concern, particularly because of its energy industry infrastructure.

The next month, a number of federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding with the state, with a goal to complete the permits by August 2019.

On Monday, the Corps agreed to a slightly less ambitious plan. They have moved up the timetable to complete permits from October 2022 to November 2020, according to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

While the Corps is the lead federal agency, at least five others must weigh in on the project:  The Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of the Interior all have a part to play to ensure that Mid-Barataria complies with laws governing pollution, animal welfare, farming and other concerns.

The Memorandum of Understanding calls on all those groups to more closely coordinate their efforts so they don’t tread over the same ground twice to push the permit approvals more quickly.

Louisiana officials are elated by the faster projected turn-around time.

“I am pleased that our recent efforts to implement the new MOU has resulted in a new permitting timetable, and I anticipate further reductions in the schedule as we continue to coordinate and find efficiencies in this process," CPRA Board Chairman Johnny Bradberry wrote in a statement. "The Mid‐Barataria Sediment Diversion is critical to our future as it addresses the root cause of our coastal crisis by reconnecting the Mississippi River with our basins and restoring the natural process that built our delta.” 

Michael Ellis, executive director of the coastal protection agency, added that even with the expedited timeline, authorities will still be able to perform a thorough environmental review.

In fact, conservation groups were quick to praise the new schedule.

“For a landscape where wetland loss is measured at an hourly rate, shaving nearly two years off the permitting timeline for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is a significant accomplishment," wrote Restore the Mississippi River Delta, a coalition that includes the Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

"This updated timeline for the project begins to reflect the true urgency of the environmental and economic crisis facing coastal Louisiana," the group said, calling the diversion project "the most effective tool available to combat catastrophic land loss in the Barataria Basin." 


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.