By Alisha A. Renfro, Ph.D., National Wildlife Federation
Last week in Baton Rouge, The Water Institute of the Gulf hosted the inaugural meeting of the Expert Panel on Diversion Planning and Implementation. The panel – comprised of 12 experts in natural and social sciences, engineering and economics – was selected from more than 60 nominees from across the country. Panel members are all from outside Louisiana, in order to foster critical and constructive review of work being led by Louisiana-based experts. Under the direction of The Water Institute of the Gulf and meeting up to three times a year, this independent panel will provide technical review, input and guidance as the state moves forward and refines its plans for diverting fresh water and sediment from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to build, maintain and sustain coastal wetlands. For this first meeting, the panel was asked to consider the most suitable approaches to addressing current or perceived uncertainties in the planning and design of sediment diversions.
The first day of this meeting was open to the public and included a series of presentations outlining the urgent need for restoration in coastal Louisiana as well as various perspectives on sediment diversions. Kyle Graham, Deputy Executive Director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), summarized Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan. In his presentation, Graham pointed out that there was no single restoration project type that can address the state’s land-loss crisis in one fell swoop, but that a suite of restoration projects are needed, including barrier island restoration, marsh creation, oyster barrier reefs, shoreline protection, hydrologic restoration and sediment diversions. Barrier island restoration and marsh creation can mechanically create land in strategic locations, but sediment diversions convey sediment to not only build new land but also to maintain existing wetlands that would otherwise be lost.
Brigadier General Duke DeLuca, Commander of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division, presented the Corps’ perspective on sediment diversions. DeLuca discussed some of the questions that the Corps would like to see answered as sediment diversions move from plan to implementation. Many of these outstanding questions should be directly addressed through the Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study, a joint project being conducted by the State of Louisiana and the Corps. The study will use historic and field data, along with models, to do an assessment of large-scale restoration features to address sustainability of the Mississippi River Delta.
Additional presenters included Jim Tripp from Environmental Defense Fund, Michael Massimi from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, Dr. Ehab Mesehle from The Water Institute of the Gulf and Dr. Alaa Ali from South Florida Water Management District.
In a late afternoon panel, Mark Wingate and Martin Mayer of the Corps’ New Orleans District, John Ettinger of the Environmental Protection Agency and Ronnie Paille of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discussed their federal agencies’ views on diversions. Afterwards, the public was given the opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns about coastal restoration directly to the panel.
The following day, panel members met in private to discuss the uncertainties discussed and the science that needs to be done to address these uncertainties. A report on that meeting will be given at a CPRA meeting in the coming months.
Bold solutions are needed to halt the rate of catastrophic land loss in coastal Louisiana. Every year, communities throughout the coast inch closer to disaster, becoming more and more exposed to the destructive forces of storm events. Infrastructure, which is vitally important to the economy of Louisiana and the nation, becomes more vulnerable, and important habitat for wildlife, fish and birds vanishes.
Limited by money and sediment resources, there is no one type of restoration project that is a cure-all solution. A suite of restoration projects that strengthen and sustain the landscape is necessary. Sediment diversions use the natural power of the river to build new land and help maintain the existing wetlands. To do nothing or to only implement the least challenging types of restoration projects would doom the resource-rich Louisiana coast.