Battle to save the coast: sediment diversion debate

Battle to save the coast: sediment diversion debate
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 11:51pm

Fisherman in Southeast Louisiana are fighting to save the Louisiana coast line, but they say the state’s plan to fix the problem could end up costing them their livelihoods. They’re worried proposed large-scale diversions in the Mississippi River could change the salinity levels and in turn hurt the seafood industry in areas like Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and other coastal parishes. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority officials argue their plan would not hurt the fishing and seafood industry.

"We see land every day being lost, and we know the severity of it and we know the urgency of it,” Charter Captain George Ricks, President of The Save Louisiana Coalition.

Charter Captain George Ricks makes his living fishing along the coast in St. Bernard Parish.

Every day he watches as more and more marsh and land begins to die and disappear, but what Ricks fears most are proposed large-scale sediment diversions on the river. He is president of The Save Louisiana Coalition. The groups’ goal is to stop proposed large-scale diversions.

"The state of Louisiana won't be considered the sportsman's paradise anymore, because of these diversions," Ricks said. “They go through with the large-scale diversions we are stuck with it. If this is wrong we're done you won't get your fisheries back. You have to say to your self this is an experiment do you want to roll the dice. “

Land loss along the coast of Louisiana is a problem the state is trying to fix.

"We've lost about 1900 square miles which is the equivalent to wiping the entire state of Rhode Island," Garret Graves, Chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA) and Executive Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Activities, explained.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority created the 2012 Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. It’s a plan to solve the issue of land loss along the entire Louisiana coast, and it's also a plan to help beef up protection from storms.

"We are in a situation with our coast when you look at the trajectory of coastal Louisiana some studies indicate by 2100 the coast of Louisiana will be in Ascension Parish," Graves said.

Graves described when the Army Corps of Engineers added levees along the Mississippi River the sent sediment into the Gulf. Now the CPRA wants to add new sediment diversions along the river to refocus the sediment deposits and some fresh water closer inland.

"All we are doing is putting this back exactly how they were before the corps of engineers came in and screwed things up," Graves said.

Ricks said it’s a plan with a lot of problems.

“They go through with the large-scale diversions we are stuck with it,” Ricks said. “If this is wrong we're done you won't get your fisheries back. You have to say to your self this is an experiment do you want to roll the dice. “

Ricks said he is worried the diversions would change up the water that fish and other seafood depend on.

"It's simple salt-water fish need saltwater. [It’s] Simple as that," Ricks exclaimed.

One industry Ricks said would see the biggest change if the diversions go through is the oyster industry.

Down in the Plaquemines Parish oyster farming families like the Jurisichs go back generations.

"They're [CPRA] willing to create a demise of industry and heritage culture to try and see an island," Mitch Jurisich, oyster farmer, said.

Mitch Jurisich is worried if the state first planed sediment diversion at Mid-Barataria near Myrtle Grove goes through his family’s oyster beds would be flushed with freshwater and his crop of oysters would die.

“We keep hearing from the CPRA that we are going to relocate the oystermen. There is no place to relocate us once you open this. The salinity is going to be zero somewhere from the Terrebonne Lafourche parish line all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf,” Jurisich exclaimed.

Graves said “You can't have it both ways you can't say you're going to over sweeten the areas where leases are today, and you're not going to create a new middle ground area where oysters can are going to thrive. You are going to create that.”

Jurisich said doesn’t want to take that chance.

"No body is more professional that than they oyster farmers that have been in it for generations. You can't tell me where to go and what to do. I can tell you where I need to be and where I need to stay," Jurisich stated.

Ricks said have seen diversions in the river near their fishing grounds before.

“They keep saying connect the river to the marsh. We have to connect the river to the marsh. Well they tried that with Caernarvon since 1991 with devastating affects,” Ricks explained. “The one [diversion] they want to put at Braithwaite is 31times larger than the present diversion at Caernarvon.”

Ricks and Jurisich the proposed diversions near Braithwaite, and Myrtle Grove would be extremely powerful and bigger than the ones currently stationed near their fishing and farming grounds.

Graves explained the best example to get an idea of what would happen with the larger diversions and their land creating potential is to look at the Bonnet Carre Spillway. Graves said estimates by the Army Corps show large amounts of sediment moved through the diversion when opened for a few weeks.

Graves said the proposed diversions in the state’s master plan would open when the river is high full of sediment which could mean only a few weeks a year.

Ricks and Jurisich want to see the state take what they call a less risky faster approach: dredging.

"What kind of land can you build in 2 to 3 weeks when you could put a dredge in the river pumping 24-7 and build land have water today land tomorrow," Jurisich said.

Graves said diversions are the best way to get the most land for your buck.

“$20 billion the largest single component of the master plan is dredging it's a huge component, but for that you are only going to get 200 square miles. The efficacy of the dollars in terms of getting 300 square miles benefited or restored square miles of wetlands for [almost] $4 billion efficacy is so much greater with diversions,” Graves stated.

The two sides have met up time after time at public meetings, but Ricks said fisherman don’t feel like their voices have been heard.

“CPRA keeps saying they want to meet with us and get our views, but we keep giving them our views. It just goes in one ear and out the other,” Ricks said.

Graves said Mid-Barataria is currently being designed, and the plan “was specifically authorized for construction by Congress.” Graves explained the CPRA plans on using the next two years to work with the community and address their concerns.

Graves said the proposed Upper-Breton Diversion near Braithwaite is several years out.

Ricks exclaimed the fight to stop diversions is far from over.

"I will go with this fight until I can't breathe any more. If it takes lying down in front of bulldozers to stop these diversions to save our fishing industry and our coastal community that's what we'll do," Ricks said.

To learn more about CPRA click here.

To learn more about The Save Louisiana Coalition click here.

To learn more about the 2012 Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan click here.

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