NEW ORLEANS — Money is finally falling into place for a major new project that would tap the silt-laden Mississippi River to create 50 square miles of wetlands — the first of what officials hope will be 10 such diversions designed to reinforce Louisiana’s eroding coast.
Construction of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion could start as early as 2015.
This controversial project could divert up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of river water into marsh areas west of Myrtle Grove in Plaquemines Parish in an effort to build 50 square miles of land during the next 50 years, said Kyle Graham, deputy executive director of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
The diversion is supposed to mimic how nature initially built Louisiana’s coastal wetlands: through periodic river floods that would bring fresh sediment and nutrients into the marsh.
During a presentation to the authority Wednesday, Graham noted that officials have discussed and worked on this project for more than 10 years.
“What has changed in our discussion of diversions is that there is now funding available,” Graham said.
Criminal settlements from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil disaster have provided $1.9 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to be used for diversions and barrier island restoration in Louisiana. The state has submitted its first proposal to the foundation, one that outlines $67.9 million in projects for initial funding and includes $40.4 million to engineer and design the Mid-Barataria diversion project.
Of the 10 diversions in the state’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection, the Mid-Barataria diversion is a top priority because of how much work has already been done on planning and because of the current and future projected land loss in the area, Graham said.
The scoping process for the project, during which the public and government agencies can comment on the design of the diversion, should be announced in the next few weeks, Graham said.
The scoping meetings will be followed by engineering and design, then public hearings and an accompanying environmental impact statement, and then final design possibly completed by spring 2015.
Graham said the goal is to have formal and informal public comment at each step.
The Mid-Barataria diversion has been the subject of some very heated meetings between proponents who want diversions to be part of coastal restoration efforts and opponents who insist large diversions will disrupt fisheries and who question whether such projects will work to build land.
Although there were people from both camps at the meeting Wednesday, public comment on the diversion itself was fairly limited.
To help address concerns previously brought up by the public and the state, the state asked The Water Institute of the Gulf to organize a panel of experts to meet three times a year over the next three years.
“It’s going to be responsive, in real time, to questions from the CPRA (state) or the public,” said Chip Groat, CEO and president of The Water Institute of the Gulf.
The panel is among a number of other efforts to address diversion questions, including a Mississippi River Hydrodynamics Study by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a small-scale physical model of the lower Mississippi River to be built at LSU.
In all, he said, about $80 million is being spent on various efforts to better understand how best to get sediment out of the river and into the marsh in order to build land.
And there are a number of questions that need to be answered, Graham said, including what effects diversions could have on navigation, how much land can realistically be built with the reduced amount of sediment in the river, effects on fisheries, and even the size and location of future diversions.