As the Master Plan for the Coast began picking up momentum this year, the agency overseeing it got a surprise: People had questions and doubts.

Not about fixing the coast, but about the large river diversions that are a key component of the plan, about what would happen to people and businesses in the path of those projects — even about the science underlying them.

Further, some of those asking the questions, including scientists and fishermen, believed that the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority was ignoring their concerns.

Now that agency is funding an effort it hopes will answer those questions – and maybe even soothe some of the hurt feelings.

Using a grant from the coastal authority, The Water Institute of the Gulf has gathered 12 top scientists and researchers from across the nation to create the “River Diversion Expert Panel” to review questions about those diversions.

“They will be looking at the issues raised both in the scientific literature as well as the popular press,” said Chip Groat, president of the institute. Among the topics:

  • The impacts of fertilizer pollutants on marsh plants

  • The ability of the diversions to build enough land, quickly enough

  • The timing and size of fisheries displacements

  • The expected economic impact on communities in the path of diversions.

The panel will also be able to raise questions of its own, Groat said.

“We will ask them to decide if there is enough science to answer these questions in a straightforward way,” Groat said. “Do we have enough data and analysis? Or do we need major work on these issues to provide those answers?”

The diversions long have been the most contentious issue in the 50-year, $50 billion Master Plan. They are designed to rebuild the sinking basins on the coast by enabling the river to once again replenish sediment to the deltas it built.

But restoring that natural balance also means returning salinity levels to a much fresher mix. That process will push oysters and some species of fish and shrimp to the southern areas of the coast.

Fishers, from shrimpers and oystermen to sportfishing guides and weekend anglers, fear that pushing those species further south could mean longer, more expensive boat rides to their target species. And the communities that rely on those fishing communities worry about what would happen if those businesses move or close.

Those concerns had burned on the back burner until this year, when funding from the BP oil spill settlement meant the state finally would have the money to begin putting plans into action. Within months, that quiet opposition became vocal.

Their success was seen this month when the St. Bernard Parish Council passed an ordinance forbidding construction of river diversions.

That vote was largely symbolic because state law supersedes parish ordinances. But as parish councilman George Cavignac said, it was done to get the attention of the state Legislature and the coastal authority.

Groat isn’t surprised by the sudden pushback against the plan.

“When they [projects] are in the planning and conceptual stages, they usually look easier and more straightforward than they do when somebody realizes this is actually going to happen,” he said.

If a review panel like this is created early enough, “so things that need further attention get that attention, then there is time to do that before you are up against deadlines to actually build something.”

The composition and rules for the panel indicate that the Water Institute of the Gulf wanted to make certain its credibility and independence were not compromised.

None of the members currently works for the state or in Louisiana. Further, panel members cannot receive funding from the coastal authority for research on topics they discuss for two years after serving, Groat said.

Two of the panel members’ research raising questions about the plan have drawn criticism from Garret Graves, head of the coastal agency.

Linda Deegan, a Louisiana State University alumna and senior scientist in the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., published a paper showing fertilizer pollutants like those in the river led to the collapse of a salt marsh.

And John Teal, senior scientist emeritus at Woods Hole, chaired an independent review of the impacts of the state’s freshwater diversions. That panel saw evidence that river water may hurt wetlands and suggested the state may be forging ahead with large sediment diversions without considering the potential danger.

Other panel members:

  • Loretta Battaglia, Southern Illinois University

  • Phil Berke, University of North Carolina

  • Jim Boyd, University of Pennsylvania

  • Bill Espey, a civil engineer in Texas

  • Liviu Giosan, Woods Hole

  • Will Graf, University of South Carolina

  • Matt Mirwan, College of William and Mary

  • Tom Minello, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center

  • Martha Sutula, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project

  • John Wells, Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Groat said the panel would review the science behind the coastal authority’s arguments in rejecting questions about the Master Plan.

“They could either say the work is good,” he said, “or they could say there needs to be more work done.”

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...