Supporters and critics debate largest Louisiana coastal project’s $2.3 billion cost

Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion would channel river water into the marsh to restore wetlands
Neptune Pass, where the Mississippi River has cut a new channel through its east bank in...
Neptune Pass, where the Mississippi River has cut a new channel through its east bank in Plaquemines Parish, LA(John Snell | WVUE)
Published: Nov. 23, 2022 at 10:37 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 25, 2022 at 12:13 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -On a windy November afternoon, a boat ride along the east bank of Plaquemines Parish reveals a spot where levees no longer confine the Mississippi River.

Alisha Renfro, a coastal scientist with the National Wildlife Federation sees Neptune Pass as a living laboratory, a real-life example of how nature meant the river to work.

“Again and again, what we can see along the Louisiana coast, places, where the river runs into these shallow water areas, are actually gaining land versus almost everyplace else in Louisiana where we’re losing land,” Renfro said.

This new channel that the river has gouged into the marsh also ignites controversy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, fearing the pass will affect navigation in the main body of the river, plans to block most of the flow with a rock barrier across the pass.

The Corps is currently soliciting public comment on its plan, which a spokesperson says would return the water flow down the channel to levels recorded before the 2019 high-water event in the Mississippi.

Coastal Activists see Neptune Pass as an argument for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project, a much larger, man-made channel on the other side of the river.

The state has applied for a federal permit for the diversion, which would be constructed in the Ironton and Myrtle Grove area about 20 miles south of Belle Chasse.

At peak times, the diversion would channel up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of river water and sediment into Barataria Bay, or nearly an Olympic-size pool every second.

“That’s what’s so critical about these restoration projects is to provide that diversity of habitat,” said Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.

An Environmental Impact Statement from the Corps estimates the diversion would build 21 square miles of land over 50 years.

Critics point to dredging projects such as Spanish Pass near Venice, where a giant dredge offshore delivered 1,600 acres of new land by pipe in roughly one year.

“What would be water one day would have bulldozers on it the next day,” said Mitch Jurisich, who chairs the Louisiana Oyster Task Force.

The EIS warns of serious, negative consequences to oyster grounds in the Bay.

Critics argue for what they see as instant land, built to a higher elevation than an emergent marsh.

In Neptune Pass, Johnson said the free-flowing river is “creating both,” a mix of marsh grasses that provide important habitat for ducks and other species, and higher areas lined with rapidly-growing willow trees.

“I think two-and-a-quarter billion can build us a lot of land with pumping and dredging,” counters Jurisich, who questions the project’s rising cost.

CPRA puts the total cost, including design, engineering, construction, and mitigation, at $2.3 billion.

That compares to an estimate of $1.4 billion as recently as 2017.

“I believe it is the lifeline to South Louisiana and it’s worth every penny,” said Chip Kline, Chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Critics point out other costs are more difficult to quantify, such as the harm fresh water would cause to hundreds of bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay.

Mitigation costs, which would total $380 million, include everything from paying for refrigeration for commercial fishers forced to travel farther for their catch to seeding new oyster grounds.

“It’ll destroy fishing, the tourism industry,” said Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser, the highest-ranking state official to call for the state to kill the whole idea.

“I can’t understand how anybody thinks creating land over 50 years at sea level gives you any flood protection,” Nungesser said.

Although dredging actually makes up a larger portion of the state’s 50-year Coastal Master Plan, CPRA leaders point out those projects are designed to last 20-30 years.

Dredging, they say, does nothing to change the forces that cost Louisiana an estimated 2,000 square miles of land since 1932.

“After a while, as you walk away from that restoration project, it begins to settle, it begins to compact, the sea rises and you’ve lost that after 20 years,” Johnson said.

Kline views dredging as a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

“The definition, as we say, of insanity, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Kline said. “So, we have to change things.”

Next month, in a pivotal moment, the Corps will decide whether to grant the required permit as it weighs the positives and negatives of the state’s most ambitious plan to reclaim some of its lost lands.

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