As a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to spread, federal, state and local officials are looking at a number of ways to try and keep the oil away from the coast. One idea includes harnessing the power of the mighty Mississippi River to protect the state's coastal marshes.
"We're going to have peak water, in about five more days, coming down the Mississippi River," said Garret Graves of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
State officials have opened up six diversions along the river, from St. Charles Parish to Plaquemines Parish. The diversions allow the Mississippi waters to act as a flushing system for the coast.
"It really could provide a fresh water wedge potentially against encroaching oil," said Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East.
One path the water is traveling through includes the Caernarvon diversion, on the border between St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. Fresh water is moving through there at 8,000 cubic feet per second.
"We're trying to get as much fresh water as we can into both the Barataria Basin and Breton Sound area on the east bank," Graves said.
While the diversions are expected to keep some of the oil out of the coastal marshes, they could have some unintended consequences. Fresh water could throw off the salinity levels along the coast, affecting fisheries and estuaries. The alternative, though, is considered far worse.
"The ecological disaster that is this oil spill, far outweighs the potential for harm," Doody said.
Officials are now considering opening up the Bohemia Spillway, on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish. It could help divert even more of the river's water.
"That diversion actually has the capacity to run a couple hundred thousand cubic feet of water per second," Graves said. "So, [it has] a very, very large diversion potential."
The idea is now under serious consideration, but a decision will need to be made quickly. The Bohemia Spillway can only be used when the Mississippi River is high. It is now expected to crest at the Carrollton Gage on May 19.
"This is a different usage of the [Bohemia] Spillway than was ever intended," Doody said. "It was only intended as a flood control feature."
Officials have said they also considered opening up the Bonnet Carre Spillway, but because of its location, they don't believe it would be as effective as the other diversions.