Coastal restoration officials take on diversion questions

River diversions were at the heart of discussions Wednesday at the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meeting in Baton Rouge.

From concerns about a coal terminal affecting the operation of a planned-for diversion in the Myrtle Grove area in Plaquemines Parish to fishermen who are against any large scale diversions, state officials found themselves answering questions they’ve addressed before.

Diversions, such as the one planned for in the Myrtle Grove area, would take water and sediment from the Mississippi River into coastal marshes with the goal of building new land.

First up at Wednesday’s meetings were concerns voiced by representatives of the Gulf Restoration Network who continued their opposition to a proposed coal terminal being located on the same site as the diversion at Myrtle Grove.

Ram Terminals applied for a coastal use permit from the state last year to build a coal export terminal on the Mississippi River on property the state had long been planning as the site for a major sediment diversion.

After a year of discussions between the state and Ram Terminals, they made an agreement on how the two could coexist.

However, members of the Gulf Restoration Network cited a report written by The Water Institute of the Gulf last year that showed allowing the coal export terminal to be built would mean a loss of 500,000 tons of sediment to coastal restoration projects over a 10-year period since boats and other structures would be in the way of the stream flow.

“Just permitting the pilings (for the dock) itself means Louisiana will have less land at the end of the day,” said Scott Eustis, Gulf Restoration Network’s coastal wetland specialist.

Jerome Zeringue, executive director of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the agreement between the state and the business lays out that either ships at the facility would be moved to allow that sediment through the diversion or the company will pay a set amount to the state to offset the loss of land building.

It’s the type of trade-off that marks the balancing act the state needs to do along a changing coastal system used for different things, Zeringue said, including navigation to fishing to economic development, all of which are consistent with the master plan.

“It’s not restoration at the expense of everything else,” Zeringue said.

Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority board, agreed and said, “On everything we do, we try to figure out where the balance is.”

Other concerns came from people involved in the fishing industry, including Dean Blanchard, owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, who said diversions won’t fix anything.

Instead, he said, the state needs to rebuild the barrier islands to keep saltwater out of the interior and let the marsh rebuild itself.

Graves said the state continues to spend millions of dollars in rebuilding the barrier island system. There are a number of projects under construction, including Shell Island East, Scofield Island and the restoration of Caminada Headland beach that runs between Port Fourchon and Grand Isle, according to information from the state’s quarterly report.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, also voiced his opposition to large diversions because of concerns about what these influxes of freshwater do to the fisheries, the marsh that still exists in the area, nutrients from the river and even flooding. Instead, he said, the state should use that money for other projects such as dredging sediment and placing it in areas to create new land.

Graves said the $50 billion state master plan already includes $20 billion for just that kind of dredging work, but in the long term, there’s just not enough money to dredge and build the type of land needed in the face of the state’s coastal land loss.

“Hopefully you know that there’s no one up here who wants to have an adverse impact on fisheries,” Graves said.

That’s why scientists were the ones to develop the current state master plan, Graves said, and why the state is spending so much money and taking a couple years to help answer questions related to sediment diversions and help identify potential impacts.