Sediment diversions are important to survival of state’s coast

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Regarding the July 3 opinion piece, “Sediment diversions not the way to rebuild Louisiana’s coast,” by George Ricks:

There’s a massive irony in the name of your contributor’s organization, the so-called Save Louisiana Coalition.

If we grant this group their central request, that we do not follow the State’s Coastal Master Plan to reintroduce the sediment and fresh water of the Mississippi River into its historic floodplain, instead of allowing it to continue to flow into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, coastal Louisiana is history.

I heard every argument possible against large-scale sediment diversions last month in St. Bernard Parish as commercial and recreational fishermen packed the parish council chambers to vent their frustrations at the chair of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Garret Graves, and an assembled panel of scientists and experts.

There was a whole lotta hollering, a fair amount of swearing and full-throated opposition to Louisiana’s plan to construct medium and large-scale sediment diversions from the Mississippi River to build and maintain coastal wetlands for our rapidly eroding marsh.

Mr. Rick’s “Save Louisiana Coalition” did everything possible to fan the flames of the crowd (even going so far as to provide red, stop-sign shaped fans for their supporters), and their perspective was absolutely the most prominent at the meeting. The leadership of the coalition was also seen shouting down speakers they disagreed with, calling state-associated scientists liars, disagreeing with the sentiment that the Mississippi River built the natural resources we all rely on, and generally doing their best to bring out the worst from those in attendance.

Despite that, I think there was some value in the exchange — heated though it might have been.

The state heard clearly that:

  • The Caernarvon river diversion is a source of huge concern to the assembled fishing community, both in its impact, and its nonresponsive management by the state.

  • Nutrients in the Mississippi River (expected to cause one of the largest ever Gulf dead zones this summer) are a real perceived threat to fisheries.

  • Dredging is seen as highly preferable to diversions (and the state is paying too much to do too little in the master plan).

The fishing community in attendance heard clearly:

  • The diversions of the past are not the diversions of the future. Caernarvon was not expected to build land, and it hasn’t.

  • Sediment diversions won’t be in existence for at least five years.

  • The EPA and the state would like to see nutrients in the river reduced.

Of course, this is what we heard. What are the actions we can point to and show that we’re serious about tackling these critical challenges?

The state of Louisiana and the EPA have done precious little to limit phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River. The state has actually tried to remove our coastal waters from the list of waterways that are impaired by nutrient pollution. Despite our lawsuit, the EPA has failed to set pollution limits for the primary Mississippi River states, the first step towards reducing nutrient pollution. While the state and the EPA said they care about reducing nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River, their actions prove the opposite.

The state also seemed to agree that much could be learned from the failed management (my words) of Caernarvon.  To give the affected communities more certainty, the state needs to make clear how their planned sediment diversions will be managed and why. The idea of mimicking nature, and only opening the diversions when the river carries the highest load of the most useful sediment, makes sense and needs to be communicated clearly to communities affected by diversions. Writing down an adaptive management plan, and including the community at the table when it’s being drafted, is a critical step to give those who use our coast some sense that they have a future.

Our future is very much in doubt. Climate change is real, and made worse by the burning of fossil fuels. None of our political leadership is interested in decreasing fossil-fuel emissions in any real way, though they are more than willing to seek federal dollars to help rebuild our coast. Unfortunately, the relative sea level rise we must deal with in coastal Louisiana is accelerating due to that unwillingness to act counter the interests of the fossil-fuels industries.

The state has a science-based Master Plan, and that’s a historic development worth celebrating. Unfortunately, without a willingness to tackle the hard issues of nutrient pollution and climate change, while engaging with coastal communities in a way that lets them chart their own future, I fear this entire initiative will fail, no matter how loudly we shout.

Aaron Viles is the Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization dedicated to uniting and empowering people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico.

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