Panel provides guidance to state in water diversion projects

An expert panel on diversions gave their first set of recommendations to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Wednesday, listing six major themes and 18 recommendations as a result of their first meeting in January.

The panel was put together by The Water Institute of the Gulf to help give the state guidance as the coastal authority moves forward with the construction of a first sediment diversion from the Mississippi River in an area near Myrtle Grove. The group will meet about three times a year during the next three years to talk about projects and needs the state should address with their diversion work. This first report focused on the uncertainties that still exist and information that still needs to be gathered.

Many of the recommendations are things the state is already working on, said John Wells, panel chair and from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Within the 18 recommendations, many of which offer guidance on what the state should include in the diversion planning, the expert panel listed seven of those as high priority.

Those high priority areas include: have the panel consider what types of ecosystem features should be monitored before and after a diversion is built; model ecosystems responses to diversions; and discuss what is known and what is expected from diversions in terms of water quality.

“We feel very strongly that data collection needs to start at least two years before construction,” Wells said.

There also needs to be a centralized database of information collected throughout the diversion planning process that can be accessible to everyone, he said.

The panel also wants to know how diversions will impact not only area wetlands, plants and animals, but also how it could impact communities and economies where the diversions will be located. The recommendations include the need for the state to regularly communicate with communities in the area of proposed diversions and develop a communications plan that would do the same for policy makers and politicians as well as others interested in the coastal restoration process.

Considering the social and economic impacts as well as conditions surrounding the sediment diversions can’t be an afterthought, he said, especially when there is a lot of uncertainty about exactly what a sediment diversion will do. There has been vocal opposition and concerns about the size of these sediment diversions being planned and what it could do to fisheries in the area of the diversions and beyond.

The panel was put together in part to help address some of the questions raised by the public, but also to provide more guidance to the state.

The next meeting of the expert panel on diversions will be held on April 30 at University of New Orleans.

This story was changed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, to correct the date of the next meeting.