June 3, 2023

The next phase in a $ 50 billion plan to protect the Louisiana coast from erosion and rising sea levels has taken the army over a major hurdle Corps of Engineers is delivering a long awaited Environmental Impact Statement for an important part of the project.

The report, released on Thursday evening, dealt with a proposal to pound a hole in the Mississippi levee. The Corps said the move would largely benefit the state’s coastal areas, although it could also affect some marine life, particularly bottlenose dolphins, and create problems for those who make a living from raising and catching seafood in the area.

“This is what climate adaptation looks like on a scale,” said Chip Kline, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Board. “For us, this project is the lifeline of our coast.”

The money for the project will come from fines paid by BP for the damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster that killed 11 oil rigs and spilled around 200 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico were.

The new project, formerly known as Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, is of course more complex than punching a hole in a levee.

If the Corps grants final permits, which could be as early as next year, a $ 1.4 billion structure will be dug into the west bank of the river below New Orleans. It will include gates that will allow operators to control the flow of water and sediment from the mighty river into Barataria Bay, which is worth almost every second of water in an Olympic swimming pool.

With fresh water and sediment flowing from the river into the depleted wetlands of the Barataria Basin, the diversion mimics the spring floods that were common before dams were built to contain the river – floods and sediments that built the Mississippi Delta in the first place . Without these regular deposits, the land would have subsided. Further damage from activities such as oil exploration cut canals into the fragile wetlands and allow destructive salt water to enter the fragile swamps. All of this and rising sea levels have combined lost around 2,000 square miles of land over the past 100 years.

The Corps evaluated seven alternative ways to set up and operate the diversion, including the option of doing nothing. The state’s proposal, he noted, would build around 17,300 acres of new land after 30 years. And while sea-level rise from climate change is likely to diminish some of those gains over time, Greater New Orleans would still be supported by the equivalent of a “speed bump” for hurricanes.

The report also estimated that more than 12,000 jobs would result from the project, which will take five years to complete once approved. After a deadline for public comment on the new report, which is technically a draft, the final environmental impact statement will be published and approval could be granted next year.

The project “is necessary to support the restoration of the damaged habitat and ecosystem services in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” says the environmental impact statement.

The river water will inevitably alter the salinity in Barataria Bay, which will affect marine life in the area.

The environmental impact statement states that dolphins would be particularly badly affected by the changes. It has been suggested that 30 percent of the bottlenose dolphins in the Barataria Basin may die or be displaced.

In 2018, Congress envisaged a waiver of the project from federal marine mammal protection laws. Oyster and brown shrimp populations would also be severely affected by the change in salinity, while white shrimp are likely to be less affected. Alligators, the report said, would do a little better.

The Louisiana Coastal Agency also released a new report discussing the diversion and focusing on how to counter the negative effects.

These initiatives include millions of dollars to monitor and protect dolphin populations, as well as paying for the relocation of oyster beds to areas with the correct salinity. They are also planning funds to upgrade boats with cooling and more efficient engines to allow longer journeys when the nearby waters of Barataria Bay are no longer suitable for oysters.

It also said it would provide funds to retrain people whose jobs may be disappearing and to provide some relief to the vulnerable poor and minority communities who rely on the waters for subsistence fishing and livelihoods.

Some officials admit they have mixed feelings. “I think the project should be built, but I have a lot of questions,” said Richie Blink, a councilor for the Plaquemines Township Government. “We need to ensure that the people who are most affected by the structure and the project have a say,” he said. “We have to make sure there is a safety net for these people.”

Those who have spoken out against the project in the past said they would not change their position based on the government report. Tracy Kuhns, executive director of Louisiana Bayoukeeper, an organization opposed to the diversion, said she prefers another, faster method the state has used to build land: dredging sediment straight from the river and placing it in place pump. However, this method of farming is more expensive and requires regular replenishment. The diversion is intended to continually replenish the wetlands.

Byron Encalade, a longtime oyster man who resists distractions, applauded all efforts the state could make to repair the damage to the fishing communities. “I won’t say no to anything that will help,” he said, but called the efforts “too little, too late”.

Coast officials point out that the ongoing damage to the state means change is inevitable and that their plan will help stave off some of the worst effects of erosion. “Without the project, things are going in the wrong direction,” said Bren Haase, executive director of the state coastal authority. He said he understood the fears of those who oppose it. “The purpose of the project is to make change happen, and change is scary.”

However, he added: “The alternative is unthinkable. It’s a coastal Louisiana that doesn’t exist. This is just not an option for me. “