Nikki Buskey / The Houma Courier
HOUMA, La. Fishermen are protesting large Mississippi River diversion projects they fear could damage productive fisheries in the Barataria Basin and east of the river.
But the diversions are necessary for saving the coast, state officials and environmentalists say.
With $1.4 billion in BP oil spill fines recently committed to the construction of freshwater diversions and barrier island projects, it's a high-stakes battle with both sides ready to fight.
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said a number of industry groups have joined forces to form The Save Louisiana Coalition to lobby against large diversions. The group includes shrimpers, oystermen, landowners, marina owners, charter boat fishermen and sport fishermen.
Guidry and others said they support much of what's in the master plan, but have objected to large river diversions from day one. Guidry and other fishermen cited the untested nature of diversions and their impacts on the fisheries.
'We are being sacrificed in hopes that we can build land with these diversions,' he said.
One of the goals of the state's master plan is to ensure Gulf of Mexico fisheries remain productive and continue to thrive, said Garret Graves, chairman of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Graves said fisheries experts have testified to the authority that these diversions won't hurt the fishery and will result in increased species diversity because of the expanded freshwater areas.
Many of these diversion projects have been in the pipeline for 20 years or more and the state welcomes input, but projects have been carefully vetted, he added.
'The reality is we've got the greatest rate of land loss in the world and we've got to look at this within realistic parameters and conditions,' Graves said. 'We're either going to have to deal with this or move.'
Those who support diversions believe reestablishing something like that natural flooding process of the Mississippi River is the only way to save Louisiana's coast.
The delta was built over thousands of years by river floods. When the Mississippi River was high it, would overtop its banks and flood the landscape, depositing sediment, nourishing the existing land and building new land.
After the river was leveed in to prevent flooding, the delta began to sink and erode, deprived of that natural process.
Diversions would open up the river in selected locations and allow water to flow into the estuaries during parts of the year when the river is high. They're also cost-effective when compared to other land-building methods.
Critics have argued there is not as much sediment in the river anymore and diversions would take too long to build land. Besides destroying fisheries, they could possibly flood some communities.
In 2010, the Davis Pond and Caernarvon diversions on the Mississippi were used by the state in an attempt to push oil out of the estuary. The diversions, which are small compared to what the state has included in the master plan, had a tremendous effect on oyster beds in the Barataria Basin and east of the river, killing many oysters.
Guidry said the brackish estuaries act as a nursery to juvenile crabs, shrimp and fish. The marsh habitat gives the vulnerable developing critters cover and nutrients before they mature and migrate into the Gulf of Mexico. He worries that diversions would freshen the estuaries to the point where they'd no longer be a suitable habitat.
'The idea what we are being told we have to make this sacrifice is unbelievable to me,' he said. 'As much as the fisheries have struggled to come back, we'll be put out of business.'
George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association, said the salty estuary also provides a sheltered area for oysters to grow. He said the diversions will make the estuaries too fresh for oysters to survive.
As the shrimping industry has become troubled and less profitable, many fishermen have abandoned the larger trawlers used to fish in the Gulf and operate smaller boats on the inland estuaries.
Mike Lane, vice president of The Save Louisiana Coalition, said people need to put themselves in the shoes of the fishermen, who have worked their entire lives and made their homes in communities because of these estuaries. Now the state is asking them to sacrifice these productive fisheries for what he calls an 'experimental' restoration idea.
Fishermen argue dredging and pipeline projects that could carry river sediment over long distances to build land are a better solution to combat land loss.
Fishermen have launched a Facebook page and a website aimed at collecting petition signatures. As of Friday, 300 people had signed the petition in four days. To learn more, visit TheSaveLouisianaCoalition.com
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE
Coastal officials have pointed to the Wax Lake Outlet as an example of what diversions can do. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the outflow canal off the Atchafalaya River in 1941 in hopes of preventing flooding in Morgan City. The outlet was designed to divert about a third of the river's discharge.
Left alone and un-monitored, the outlet steadily built land until a new delta emerged in the 1970s following a flood. Growth continues today.
Historically, fisheries thrived when the river was functioning as it was originally intended, sending regular freshwater floods into Louisiana's estuary, said David Muth, Louisiana state director of the National Wildlife Federation.
As land has eroded, basins have opened up and the salt water line has moved steadily inland, he said. This is especially visible in the Barataria and Terrebonne estuaries. While that fishery is productive now, the system is collapsing.
'How long is it going to last?' he said.
Muth said about 80 percent of the river's sediment load is carried in the steam and it can't be tapped into unless river diversions are used.
He added diversions would not be happening all the time.
'When people hear of a big diversion they think of it pouring into the system through most of the year,' Muth said. 'But there's not enough water in the river to have them operating all the time, and there are even questions about how many you can open at once. In order to get the most bang for your buck, you need to open them when the river is high.'
Currently the state plans to employ a combination of dredging, pipelines and large-scale diversions to rebuild the coast.
'With freshwater diversions, we can start building land and sustain much of the land that's already there. We can also stay ahead of sea level rise,' Muth said.
Muth added that dredging could never rebuild and sustain what Louisiana has lost because it's a complicated and unsustainable process. Without diversions, rebuilt land will be subjected to the same forces of erosion at work now.
'Diversions are the key to fixing the coast because it is how we built the coast in the first place,' Muth said. 'There is no alternative. The idea that you can just put dredges out there and recreate what nature did is not sustainable.'