Reclamation effort sees progress

New Orleans — Lower 9th Ward residents who turned out to a community workshop on the restoration of the Bayou Bienvenue Wetlands Triangle on Tuesday night learned that progress is being made in bringing back New Orleans’ closest wetlands, but far more work lies ahead.

About 50 years ago, the area was a freshwater cypress marsh but has eroded into an open-water brackish marsh over decades of carving canals, building levees and constructing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

Leaders of community groups, environmental groups and representatives from various governmental entities gathered to talk about plans to restore the area.

Amanda Moore, representing the National Wildlife Fund, showed replicas of educational and interactive “museum quality” signs that will be added to a platform built by the community a few years ago at the end of Caffin Avenue, just past the intersection of Florida Avenue.

Since then, the platform has been used in various recreational and educational capacities.

Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club and host of the meeting, told the audience that looking out at the wetlands from the platform, “there are 27 doctorates out there.” But when an audience member asked if studies had been done on a strip of land crossing the marsh and what would happen to the tidal flow if that land were to disappear, his only answer was that much more research needs to be done.

Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, talked about getting levees that run along the neighborhood certified for FEMA purposes so that flood insurance for the residents remains affordable. He also discussed the need to find funds to maintain new flood control projects, including the surge barrier between eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.

While challenges remain, Doody said there had been “tremendous improvement” and the area has “true flood protection for the first time.”

Gregory Miller, chief of the plan formulation branch at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, spoke about his research into the history of the triangle and working to restore the ecosystem and cypress forests to their former state.

Closing the MR-GO was one of the first major steps taken by the corps to improve flood protection in the area and slow the erosion. Miller said researchers saw a 50 percent decrease in salinity after the channel was closed.

The second phase of work will focus on restoration, including plans to rebuild cypress forests, rebuild land, protect the shorelines along Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, build oyster reefs and expand recreational opportunities for residents, Miller said. The $3 billion plan has been signed by the chief of the corps and will be reviewed by Congress, he said.

An audience member asked how much of the area would be restored, and Doody replied that he “didn’t want to throw a wet blanket” on the discussion, but funding issues must be resolved and the state must come up with a share of the money to match federal funds — only when the plans are approved.

Madeline Goddard, deputy general superintendent for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, introduced herself as “one of the few people who has built wetlands in the desert.” Before coming to New Orleans, Goddard worked on a project using innovative water reclamation techniques to create wetlands near Phoenix.

By finding new ways to treat the effluent from the East Bank Waste Water Treatment Plant, which sits right in the middle of the marsh, Goddard said she is working on projects to add fresh water and clean soil to the marshes, as well as add vegetation.

To meet the environmental standards, Goddard talked about the possibility of using Ferrate, an iron molecule compound that can potentially offer an alternative to conventional water and wastewater treatment technologies.

Goddard also talked about storm protection improvements to the treatment plant, which suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Katrina after being submerged in 16 feet of brackish water for weeks.

Malek-Wiley referred to a statement made by Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves about the possibility of some of BP’s recent criminal fines going toward a river diversion project directing Mississippi River water into the Bayou Bienvenue area.

Malek-Wiley urged the audience to stay engaged to make sure that specific project becomes a reality.

Arthur Johnson, interim director for the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development, said it’s important that residents of the neighborhood are not overlooked, that they remain engaged and that they benefit from all the research and investment in the area.

“We live here,” he said. “This is what we live with every day.”