Marine Fisheries Service expresses concerns about Myrtle Grove diversion

In a recent letter to the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the National Marine Fisheries Service expressed many of the same concerns about the planned Myrtle Grove diversion voiced by opponents of the diversions contained in the state master plan for the coast.

The agency raised questions about:

  • The displacement of important species and loss of their habitats as the river water reduces salinity levels in estuaries
  • Research showing pollutants carried by the river could make marshes more susceptible to erosion by storm surges
  • The possibility that the sediment load in the river may not be large enough to produce the results the master plan predicts

The comments were contained in the fisheries service’s response to a request for feedback to help the state prepare for the federal permitting process. The letter is intended to give the coastal authority a head start in responding to issues the fisheries service will bring up in the permitting process for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion (the official name of the Myrtle Grove project) .

This early exchange is part of a cooperative effort between Gulf states and federal agencies to expedite what is expected to be a regulatory logjam for Gulf coastal projects when fines from the Deepwater Horizon disaster finally begin flowing.

David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program, described the letter from the fisheries service as a “list of chores.”

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority “was wise to ask for the rules of the road before getting too far down it,” he said via email. Once the agency completes the checklist, “we are confident that the EIS [environmental impact statement] will reflect that building Mid-Barataria will result in net gains over a future without the diversion.”

The permitting process requires comments from federal agencies responsible for managing public resources in the project area. Agencies with concerns typically ask the applicant to adjust the projects to eliminate or lessen possible impacts, or to outline programs to compensate for the impacts.

Those requests are not binding. The permitting agency, for example the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, can issue the permits over the objections of consulting agencies.

In its review of the diversion, the fisheries service was careful to first state that it supported efforts to stop coastal land loss. It did not say the project should not be built.

But the agency, charged with protecting habitat important to marine species, spent most of its four-page response, dated June 26, listing its concerns, stating the project might:

  • “Displace marine fishery species from currently productive habitats to less supportive habitats”

  • “Reduce marine fishery productivity”

  • “Convert essential fish habitat to areas no longer supportive of some federally managed marine fishery species or their prey items”

  • “Render wetlands impacted by diversions more susceptible to erosion from storms”

  • “Degrade water quality”

  • “Cause socio-economic hardship to those involved in the commercial and recreational fishing industries”

The agency also said reduced estimates of the river’s sediment load, combined with accelerated sea-level rise, means “the 300 square mile estimate of net land change outlined in the Louisiana Master Plan associated with the use of multiple river diversions deserves further scrutiny.”

Because of that concern, the agency “believes it is important for an independent scientific body to evaluate models being used to determine the potential for wetland benefits likely to occur from the MBSD project, as well as the associated risks to EFH (essential fish habitat) and living marine resources.”

Those concerns have been raised by groups opposed to the river diversions, as well as some coastal researchers.

“It mirrors what we’ve been saying,” said George Ricks, a charter boat captain who is president of the Save Louisiana Coalition. That group wants the state to rebuild wetlands by dredging sediment from the river and pumping it into sinking basins rather than the combination of that approach and diversions currently in the master plan.

“It’s point-by-point what we’re saying will happen when they put the river in the marsh.”

The National Wildlife Federation, however, supports using diversions to rebuild the coast. Muth said the letter should have included an acknowledgement “that the Barataria Estuary is not a static landscape, and that it is already undergoing profound negative changes.

“With no action, projections for the future of Essential Fish Habitat in Barataria are poor, with almost all important estuarine marsh likely to disappear in the coming decades. Any project must be evaluated against that scenario, and the short-term trade-offs measured. ”

Garret Graves, head of the coastal protection authority, refused The Lens’ request for comment.

The national fisheries service letter included suggestions on how the coastal authority could address its concerns. Some of the suggestions, such as closing diversions during spawning seasons for some species, already are under consideration by the authority. The agency has stressed that operation of the diversions will be adapted to evolving science.

Many of the concerns raised have long been acknowledged and considered the unfortunate cost of saving the rapidly sinking southeastern coastal area of the state. A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the area can expect more than five feet of relative sea-level rise by the end of the century. The average elevation of the region is between two and three feet.

In developing the 2012 Master Plan, the coastal authority ran numerous scenarios projecting the long-term effectiveness and cost-per-acre of land-building techniques. Large sediment diversions were determined to be the most efficient and cost-effective.

The master plan must be resubmitted to the Legislature every five years. Lawmakers must vote the entire plan up or down. It has been approved unanimously in its first two editions, both of which included diversions.

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About Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories and issues of Louisiana’s wetlands was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. In 2012 Marshall was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Loyola University School of Communications Den of Distinction.

  • ricky ricardo

    The difference between the two sets of critics (Natl Marine Fisheries and Save LA Group) is that NMFS will objectively look at data presented in a scientific manner and play devils advocate in hopes for the best overall future of the ESTUARY. Save LA people will run around screaming, bullying, and arguing regardless of scientific data unless it can be construed to support their no-diversions position, all with the best outcome FOR THEIR PERSONAL FINANCES at the forefront.

    Dredging and rebuilding or even maintaining the current states of Barataria or Breton estuaries is too expensive, it’s an unfortunate truth. With no action, both estuaries will continue to degrade. That leaves us with only two alternatives that must be compared: do nothing and end up with nothing or divert. Neither is ideal, but diversion is far and better than do nothing. The Save LA group will want to try and ignorantly compare present conditions to a diversion scenario, but the proper comparison is what will we have decades into the future. Our surroundings are changing drastically whether we like it or not, and adaptation to Mother Nature will get us further than fighting Mother Nature.


    Mr. Ricardo, sir, are you stating that actual historical data from areas where natural river crevasses now exist is not as accurate as computer modeled scenarios? The current sediment load data in the river south of the Old River structure hasn’t yet been finalized. The ongoing USACE study will provide more accurate sediment load data. This data is not yet available to be plugged into a computer model. The CPRA is not using the best scientific data because it doesn’t presently exist. How did the CPRA calculate the 300 square mile ESTIMATE in 2010?? Simple question, why is the data that was used to come up with that figure available to the media, is it a secret? If you have it please send it to the Lens so it can be passed on to the public. Portraying any group as a bunch of dummies isn’t productive. The members of these groups elect the public officials. The state legislature will have the final say on the CPRA projects. Our present governor will be gone before the final projects go through the permit process so new CPRA czars will be chosen and who knows what will happen. I hope the computer models perform better than the National Hurricane Center spaghetti tract models.

    You mentioned PERSONAL FINANCES, I won’t do that yet, but there are probably big bucks being thrown around Baton Rouge these days.

    Mother Nature has been quashed by the USACE, hopper dredges are presently dredging in Southwest Pass and dumping in the Gulf of Mexico as we speak. The river is in the process of being deepened to accommodate Panamax vessels so the beat goes on. The vessel traffic in the river trumps restoration projects that effect the river flow volume and cause shoaling as the West Bay Diversion did.
    Have you heard that one of our restoration hero’s is against the large river diversions? Dr. Sherwood Gagliano has taken a public stand against the large diversions. Why hasn’t the media jumped on that?

  • ricky ricardo

    George/Mike, scientists calibrate computer models based on observed phenomena to make sure their models are accurate. For instance, modelers would look at a crevasse’s behavior in past history, and fine tune their models until they reproduce what has actually happened/been observed. So yes, I think computer models are pretty accurate in terms of predicting geomorphology. The models would not pass through peer reviews if they could not replicate actual physical processes. The plans would not be published if they did not pass peer review.

    Also, George/Mike, there are not a whole lot of expert riverine or estuarine numeric modelers running around. Do you really think the state would hire sub-par modelers for their most important publication to date in the Master Plan, and then pull a 180 and hire a completely different set of people for the Mississippi river Hydrodynamic Study??? It is no secret that the modelers on both studies are basically the same team of people. So now that this truth has been revealed to you, we will go one step further…since it is basically the same team of people, why would they pull one data set of sediment loading they knew to be faulty for the Master Plan, and then pull a completely different “correct’ data set for the next study? It would devalue their work and reputation. Numbers will continually be refined, but don’t expect the new sediment loading numbers to look extremely different from the old ones. I actually read the Master Plan, and several of its appendices. They are all public. They are all online. There are volumes of data referenced in those appendices. Their numbers are no secret. Stop with the conspiracy theory BS.

    Yelling and screaming down officials and scientists who have dedicated their lives to restoring the coast at public meetings in the St Bernard Chambers rather than at least trying to understand them is unproductive, sir. Look in the mirror. Blatantly picking and choosing facts out of larger studies that disprove your position is unproductive, sir. Jumping on the radio to spout off your opinions to the masses is unproductive, sir. When a scientist or engineer presents something, it has been peer reviewed, checked for errors, and deemed publishable by other experts. When you take to the internet, radio, or tv and pop off what your OPINIONS are on the cause/effect of things you notice while out fishing, you are not being productive. In fact, you are doing a disservice to the public by spreading fear and conjecture as scientific truth.

    Other inaccuracies in your post:

    -USACE dredges are only currently authorized to maintain the navigation channel to 45 ft. by Congress. The new WRDA bill authorizes 50 ft, but it has not been fully adopted, signed into law, or funded by Congress yet; so no, the river is not currently being deepened to accommodate Panamax vessels at this time.

    -There is ample evidence that the Pilot Town anchorage was shoaling even prior to West Bay’s construction. If we diverted 100% of the river’s flow at say, Empire, the river would not dry up. It’s channel would be saltier, but would not silt in because there would be little sediment travelling that length either. Did the MRGO dry up or silt in once rocked? No.

    -Funny you bring up Sherwood. He was the first one calling for diversions decades ago and wanted the state to give him money to try and build one. Now he is against them? He also happens to own a lucrative coastal engineering firm, but it is a firm currently without the technical expertise on hand to design a large scale diversion on its own. He would however greatly stand to profit if the Master Plan for St Bernard was changed to include other pet projects of his, since a diversion is really the only major thing slated for the lower Breton Sound Basin. So, look at your hero as exhibit A of someone positioning to line their pockets.


    This is Ken Ragas not George/Mike. I think you owe George/Mike an apology for chewing them out. I don’t think that I am acquainted with you unless we crossed paths at a meeting. If the models simulate natural crevasses so well, have the modelers plug into Grand Pass as a data base. It is 75′ deep at the river and 650′ wide, see if they can make it work as a delta building system. It flows into the shallow Gulf of Mexico not over the continental shelf. It is part of the Birds Foot Delta which the CPRA scientist claim is eroding at a rapid clip and is not restorable. The same situation exist on the east bank at Baptiste Collette Pass. The “expert witnesses” of the history of the delta are the people who worked on the many different types of vessels from offshore crew boats to jo-boats, Lafitte skiffs and flatboats. They are being ridiculed and called “local vocals”. And the scientist are being elevated to elite positions possessing all knowledge. The CPRA is funding TWIG experts and the USACE is using their people, who I have been in contact several times, they seem to me like the blind leading the blind. They are jumping through hoops trying to come up with the “estimated” 300 miles of land that the diversions are supposed to create. I’m glad I don’t have their job. Who are the peers in this conglomeration of so called experts. They are trying to come up with the impossible dream. The only way a river diversion will build land is if a dredge pumps borrow into the mouth of it and that would defeat the purpose of the project and still cause severe damage to the seafood industry. I know a few prominent peers who say large diversions are not the answer but they have to shut up in order to keep their jobs.
    If the premise is to build a barrier across Plaquemines Parish using diversions as the method to achieve the protection of the west bank and New Orleans and upriver towns and if a 50 year span is required to attempt to do this we are playing Russian Roulette and wasting the money that could be used to dredge and pump solid land into the eroded delta ecosystem.
    Like I said before, the state legislature will have the final say on the projects and Bobby and Garret will probable be trying to work their way to Washington, D.C.
    Ken Ragas

  • ricky ricardo

    The moment you create any new land in Louisiana, it is
    subject to settlement, subsidence, and erosion. We have 1-time money and only one shot at
    getting this fixed in the proper manner to last lifetimes. Lets say you could
    dredge 100 square miles overnight…in 10-15 years most of it would be gone
    again, yet you would have no money left to fix it again. Rationalize that logic path for me please. Conversely, for a far cheaper price, yet at the expense of some of our local fisheries, we could create a permanently self-nourishing solution through diversions where land would persist and grow into the future. It is the best solution among a group of poor solutions. Grand Pass dumping into a short and unconfined bay a couple of miles from the continental shelf is much different than Myrtle Grove dumping into a vast shallow marsh platform that could easily capture suspended sediments. How do you plan to tell your grand
    kids sorry, that you spent all the money greedily on yourself instead of investing it on
    their coastal future? Not to mention the largest point anti-diversion crowd ignores…WE CANNOT AFFORD TO REPLACE THE ENTIRE COAST THROUGH DREDGING. The facts are unfortunate, but sticking your head in the sand is no solution.

    Funny how anti-diversion folks are all about coming out into the open, stating their
    names, and challenging others to do so on internet forums, yet can name but one fringe scientist allied with their cause.

    I presume with all the political talk of yours, it would be your dream to have
    nungesser as gov with PJ as the new Garret…

  • Anon

    I’m going to go ahead an side with nearly everything Ricky has said. Ken, you are spouting responses that don’t really counter his points.

    My favorite part is when you insult the science and fall back onto observations of man. The delta timescale doesn’t yield itself to a lifetime. You acknowledge this but then try to ignore it when it isn’t convenient for you. “The blind leading the blind”. They are the best we got. How would you feel if I called any professional work you were involved in complete BS without really knowing about your field? And then how would you feel if I persisted in a public forum? Just because you don’t understand something or disagree with it doesn’t mean that
    your “opinion” is accurate. You might sound great to an uneducated public, so I guess you’ve got that.

    Do you understand that the design of a sediment diversion is cutting edge and laced with uncertainties? The peers are the people that don’t run their mouth and twist opinion into scientific fact. Scientific work is truth checked by professionals BEFORE it is accepted. Even then, when something is accepted and errors are found, formal revisions and
    comments can be tacked on.

    The only way to build land with a diversion is to pump sediment into the inlet mouth? Where did you come up with this? Are you worried about a lack of suspended sand in the water column? You do understand that the diversion can be designed to have adequate velocities->shear stresses to trigger incipient motion and maintain transport? The design is to drain an underwater sandbar. There are 3D river models (that capture all processes within
    the river) that show proposed diversion locations and which ones capture flow lines over sand bars.

    As stated by Ricky, the master plan has all of its scientific background and assumptions in the appendices. Why haven’t you gone through them? You’ve formed your opinion without proper investigation.

    Yes Jindal is going to be gone by the time this happens. Yes… people may retire or move on. That doesn’t mean any of those people are necessarily trying to use these projects as a political gateway. People get promotions and move on with their life. That is how the world works.

    Playing Russian roulette, huh? No, that would be refusing to compare alternative projects. Established engineering practice requires the design of alternatives and comparing the pros and cons. Ricky put it well when he said we can’t afford to replace the entire coast through


    We seem to be in a “tit for tat” situation which could go and on.I think if y’all would want to get together with me we could better present each others data and have a fruitful exchange. I am a simple 70 year old “man” who has a strong background in math and science and 50 years of experience in working in the natural diversions (river passes). I was raised on the river and spent most of my life in the marshes on both banks of the river in south Plaquemines Parish. I have respect for all scientist who are for and against these CPRA river diversions as long as “all” of the data used is congruent with the overall operation of the river as an economic lifeline and the sustenance of the Gulf of Mexico fisheries.The pipelining of borrow from the river includes small diversions for salinity control. I don’t know your back grounds so if you want to connect let me know. I have been involved in CWPPRA since 1992. Your remarks say that the diversion design is in an experimental development stage. Just don’t experiment with one the largest marine fisheries systems in the country without addressing the answers to the NMFS questions.