Gulf of Mexico
Source: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority

LA - Divert or Die: Louisiana’s Controversial Plan to Save Coastal Communities and Ecosystems

An upcoming project would change the flow of the Mississippi River and its sediment to make up for land the coast is losing due to climate change and sea-level rise. Climate Change

A football field full of moss-covered bald cypress trees gone every 90 minutes, along with delicate purple irises, tide-tattooed barrier islands, and marsh grasses. That’s the common estimate of how much land Louisiana’s coast is losing — the fastest rate of land loss in North America. From 1932 to 2016 almost 1.2 million square acres of land disappeared, and more vanishes every day.

The state faces a confluence of threats. Accelerated sea-level rise due to climate change, subsidence, oil and gas drilling, and relentless tropical activity constantly loosen the sediment and allow the land and whatever was growing on top of it to be carried away in the current.

Today the Barataria Bay — one of the major outlet regions of the mighty Mississippi River and one of the areas worst affected by erosion — is muddy but still blue. Small fishing vessels dot the horizon as anglers haul in their catch of the season. A sticky heat beats down 11 months of the year, allowing tropical species like orchids and even some carnivorous plants to thrive alongside egrets and tree frogs.

All of it is at risk as the shore slowly melts into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Bay has gotten larger. As land eroded away, many smaller and distinct bodies of water disappeared,” says Rosina Philippe, an elder of the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha Tribe who lives near the Bay.

Deteriorating marsh
Ponds increase in size as marsh disappears in this 1988 file photo.
Terry McTigue/NOAA (public domain)

Since the 1980s a collective of scientists, state lawmakers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have brainstormed ways to revive and rebuild the lost wetlands. In 2012 Army Corps officials released the master plan for the largest, most expensive, and most controversial potential solution: the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project.

The diversion would re-channel part of the Mississippi into swamps and marshes of the Barataria Basin near the towns of Ironton and Lafitte, about 25 miles south of New Orleans. This, officials argue, would allow the natural process of the river to bring in more freshwater — and with it the sediment necessary to rebuild land.

After an initial five years of construction, this diversion would build and sustain 10,000 to 30,000 acres of coastal swamps and marshes over a 50-year period, according to Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Ten years after its proposal, the project looms on the horizon. Already five of its nine permits and certifications are complete. The Army Corps is expected to release its final Environmental Impact Statement in September, the approval of which would likely trigger consent for the final three permissions.

But like every coin and every story, there are at least two sides. Some say the diversion project is necessary to benefit future generations, while others argue that alternative projects could build more land.

Rising Water, Vanishing Culture

Eugene Turner, a coastal scientist professor at Louisiana State University, expresses concerns that diverting the Mississippi into the Barataria Basin would immediately raise water levels — as much as two to three feet when the water is flowing. That would, in turn, force much higher storm surges through the Bay during tropical activity.

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