NEW ORLEANS -- As the Gulf region prepares to mark six months since the start of the BP oil spill, there is renewed attention on an area hit especially hard by it: the Mississippi River delta.

'The oil spill is another symptom, like Katrina and Rita, of a much larger problem,' said Val Marmillion of America's Wetland Foundation.

The problems with this delta began decades before the oil spill, and over the years the problems have only gotten worse. That is part of the discussion now taking place at the 'Delta Dialogues,' a global gathering of scientists, engineers and environmentalists. It is a conference taking place in a city that knows all too well the danger presented by a disappearing wetland.

'When you have a delta that's in demise and dying the way this one is, any storm event, any major disruption, has much greater consequence,' Marmillion said.

Several delta experts at the conference, though, believe there is hope for the Mississippi Delta. What it needs now, they said, is sediment,

'The sediment is the skeleton of the delta,' said Dr. Chris Paola, a geology professor at the University of Minnesota.

Yet, the needed sediment is currently cut off by levees along the river, dredged at the mouth and then dumped off the Continental Shelf in the Gulf.

'It used to move through a lot of small channels, multiple outlets along the river,' said Dr. Robert Twilley of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. 'We've closed all those off, so we don't have the distribution system that we used to have.'

Experts say the solution lies in a massive engineering overhaul of how the river's sediment is transported into the wetlands.

'To put the river back, it's going to require some tough decisional trade-offs,' Twilley said, 'but if we don't do it, everyone loses.'

It is a project they admit, though, will take billions of dollars to make a reality.

'It's going to take a modest amount of money and an enormous amount of political will,' Paola said.

The World Delta Dialogues conference continues at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans through Thursday.

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