Opponents of a project designed to divert fresh water from a flooding Mississippi River into Louisiana marshes on the eastern bank of the river and ultimately the Mississippi Sound testified before Mississippi lawmakers on Tuesday.
Critics say that the project will harm oysters, dolphins and other marine life because of the reduction in salinity. Also contributing to the reduction in water quality would be pollution from the Mississippi River, which drains the largest watershed in the United States.
The diversion would be a gated structure near Bertandville that would cost $800 million and is one of the cornerstone projects of the state's plan to restore its disappearing coast. Another similar structure would be erected on the west side of the river to ostensibly replenish marshes in Barataria Bay.
Among those opposed is Louisiana Lieutenant Governor and former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. He told a joint hearing of the Waterways and Ports committees that the Mid-Breton Diversion Project could be disastrous for the seafood and tourism industries in addition to hurting the ecosystem of the Mississippi Sound.
“We need to do things for the right reasons. We’ve got enough money from BP to save our coast,” Nungesser told the Northside Sun. “God help us if we waste it, like we’re about to do. We won’t get this chance again. Louisiana doesn’t need a 50-year plan and neither does Mississippi. We don’t have 50 years and a diversion won’t build land above the waterline.”
Nungesser also says his solution would be cheaper but wouldn’t make consultants rich. His solution is to build up ridges of dredged sediment in vulnerable marshes that would be planted with vegetation, thus anchoring them against storm surge flooding.
He also told the committee that since much of the river’s sediment is being trapped at the Old River Control Structure, which keeps the Mississippi River from shifting its channel to the Atchafalaya River basin, the land built by the expensive diversion projects would be negligible.
The Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion’s maximum capacity will be 75,000 cubic feet per second when the Mississippi River reaches a flowrate of 1 million CFS. At peak flow, the Mid-Breton project will divert 7.5 percent of the total flow of the river and is supposed to create 15,831 acres of land over the next 50 years.
The funds for the project will come from the $2.544 billion in settlement funds from BP due to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The project is one of several spearheaded by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority that would divert flow from the Mississippi River and divert into marshes in the hopes that the river will deposit silt and allow the marshes to heal after years of erosion, saltwater intrusion and other factors that lead to a football field-sized chunk of southeastern Louisiana being lost every 100 minutes.
There is time for Louisiana and Mississippi project opponents to possibly derail the project, as the draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is due on November 9, 2022. After that, public comments will be taken at public meetings. The final EIS will be released December 2023 with a decision to be made in February 2024.
Critics of the diversion say that the repeated openings of the Bonnet Carre Spillway could be a preview of what is to come for the Mississippi Sound.
Since the spillway was opened in 1931, it has been opened 15 times to divert floodwaters from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain and ultimately the Mississippi Sound via Lake Borgne. Seven of those openings have been after 2008.
In 2019, in response to massive flooding with the Mississippi River, the Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway. The salinity reduction and pollution resulted in algal blooms and devastation for the Mississippi’s seafood and tourism industries.
Department of Marine Resources Executive Director Joe Spraggins told the joint committee that his agency will be using computer models to predict the impacts of the Mid-Breton project on the water quality of the Mississippi Sound. The goal is to provide data that could be used to oppose the project during the public comment period following the release of the EIS by the Corps of Engineers.
The view of project opponents is supported by the EIS for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project, which predicts “major and adverse effects” on shrimp and oyster fisheries and the dolphin population in Barataria Bay.
Moby Solangi is the president and executive director of the Gulfport-based Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. He told the joint committee that mortality rates in dolphins, which reached a high in 2019 during the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, would increase due to the water quality issues from the diversion project.
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which Solangi presented to the committee, showed that dolphin and sea turtle deaths spiked each year that the spillway was opened.
In 2010 after the BP oil spill, there were 147 dolphin carcasses and 264 dead sea turtles that were found by state and federal officials in Mississippi. In 2011, when the spillway was opened, 82 deceased dolphins and 136 sea turtles were found. During the years when the spillway was closed, less than 50 dead dolphins per year were found.
The number of dead dolphins and sea turtles spiked again in 2016, 2018 and 2019, all years when the Bonnet Carre was opened. In 2019, there was a high of 153 dead dolphins and 201 sea turtles after the Corps discharged more than 10 million gallons of fresh water into the Mississippi Sound.
Even residents of the parish where the projects would be built are skeptical of their value. Plaquemines Parish’s council voted to oppose a similar project, the $1.3 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, in April. This project on the west bank of the river in Plaquemines could be approved by the Corps of Engineers in 2023.
The sediment diversion controversy isn’t the only problem with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its management of the Mississippi River watershed.
In September, a federal judge tossed part of a lawsuit filed by several coastal cities and counties along with tourism and fisheries groups that would’ve compelled the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission to conduct an environmental impact study on the damage to the Mississippi Sound ecosystem due to the 2019 opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
A lawsuit involving Mississippi River flooding in southwest Mississippi is in discovery phase where both sides share information that will be used in the trial.
Then Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann filed the lawsuit against the federal government in February 2019 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on behalf of several southwest Mississippi school districts over the flooding of 8,000 acres of 16th section land, which was set aside by the federal government for school district use.