Wasted Mississippi River Sediment Can Help Rebuild Terrebonne/Lafourche Land
HOUMA, Louisiana - On the frontline of the war against coastal erosion, Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish residents watched as the excess sediments that came down the river during the 2011 Mississippi River Flood went out into the Gulf, bypassing the marshes that desperately needed the sediment to survive.
"Why aren't we using the silt from the Mississippi to build land?" asked Clifford Smith, a member of the Mississippi River Commission at a Houma meeting of the America's WETLAND Foundation's "Blue Ribbon Resilient Communities" Leadership Forum held to jumpstart regional resiliency planning.
The two-day forum, attended by more than 100 Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish officials, stakeholders, citizen groups, conservationists and industry representatives, wrapped up today with recommendations for sustaining area coastal communities.
The America's WETLAND Foundation is convening 11 Blue Ribbon Resilient Community Forums across the five Gulf Coast States of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The forums assess vulnerabilities and empower the region to envision, plan and act to ensure resiliency and sustain cultural, economic and ecological values in the face of growing coastal degradation.
The forums also seek to strengthen the local voice of the 12 million residents along the Gulf Coast and provide more authentic solutions to envisioning the future. The Houma meeting is the fourth leadership forum held since March.
Forum participants also addressed the need to reduce mitigation costs for environmentally beneficial coastal projects as at times as the costs to mitigate can expand local costs by two and a half times, rendering important projects unaffordable.
Confusion and mid-course rule changes by the federal government has also hindered restoration efforts. Hence, a coordinated effort was encouraged to tie down the specifics of plans and educate local residents with clear, transparent information on a timeline for restoring Southeast Louisiana that would help them plan for their future.
Forum participants also urged opportunities for private landowners to receive some relief in terms of tax credits or incentives for restoring their land, instead of burdensome permitting and regulation requirements they currently face.
Smith also pointed out that sediments from the Atchafalaya River, which is not sealed off from its delta as is the Mississippi, is building some 400-500 acres of land every year, at the same time that Southeast Louisiana loses land at the rate of a football field every 50 minutes.
Planning for restoration should include ways to capture the three sources of sediment in the river, explained Dr. Mead Allison, associate director of the University of Texas's Jackson School of Geosciences, who argued that there is enough sediment. "They are the river sediment, the sand flowing in the water and the river bottom itself that does not move," he said.
"You need a river diversion that uses all three resources of sediment," Allison said.
P.J. Hahn, coastal zone manager for Plaquemines Parish, the third most seriously eroding parish in Louisiana, proposed putting a dredge in the river. He also said more studies are not needed.
"Take the West Bay diversion at the mouth of the Mississippi," Hahn said. "It was studied for 12 years and cost $28 million. We are studied to death." The Mississippi River flood event this spring created a five-acre plot of land at West Bay near the mouth of the river, even as land to the west continued slipping into the Gulf of Mexico.
People at Ground Zero for coastal erosion in South Louisiana "understand the dynamics of the coast," Hahn said. "They know we are losing the fight. We are aiming but we are not shooting."
Dr. Paul Kemp, vice president of the Louisiana Coastal Initiative of the National Audubon Society, agreed that while some projects were built to help flood control, they ended up helping build land, like in Wax Lake. "We need multiple outlet diversions, similar to the Bonnet Carre Spillway. That is the way to deal with flood control and building land," Kemp said.
Voicing frustration at federal regulations that require mitigation when constructing an environmental project to help build land, Terrebonne Levee District director Reggie Dupre called it "the most frustrating policy in the United States...It is insane."
North Lafourche Levee District representative Dwayne Bourgeois agreed with Dupre's frustrations. "I have more than one project where the cost of mitigation is two and a half times the cost of the original project," Bourgeois said. "Why do coastal protection projects have the same mitigation requirements as other projects around the country?" Bourgeois asked. "This has got to stop."
Other residents voiced frustration that so little is being done to stop coastal erosion, just more and more planning.
"What funding can we count on?" said Alexis Duval of Houma. "The federal government is not going to come forth anytime soon. What can we do immediately?" She called for direct dollar-for-dollar tax credits to landowners, individual or corporate, who spend money to fight land loss. "We need to create a system where an individual or corporation can get a direct tax credit."
Nick Matherne, director of the Terrebonne Office of Coastal Restoration and Protection, said his office is working with landowners and corporations to develop pre-approved sites where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could place Mississippi River dredge spoils to help build land.
"In the future, this dredge material will be used as beneficially as possible," Matherne said. "We all care about the environment. That's why we are sitting around this table. We have to be innovative moving forward."
Berwick Duval, a Houma attorney and member of the board of the America's WETLAND Foundation, voiced another frustration. "There is a level of distrust in Washington towards people from Louisiana," Duval said. "It's not justified, but it's true. We need a civil dialogue to be taken seriously."
The Blue Ribbon Resilient Communities project is chaired by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor, Jay Dardenne, and co-chaired by Texas Commissioner on Environmental Quality, Buddy Garcia, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Dr. William W. Walker, Alabama State Senator, Vivian Davis Figures, and Alabama State Representative, Randy Davis.