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The Louisiana Coast: Last Call — Diversions?

Anyone following the development of the Master Plan for the Louisiana coast knows that the central part of the plan is also its most controversial: large scale river diversions, opening the levees on the sides of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans to let the silt-carrying Mississippi out into these sinking deltas to begin rebuilding them.

But not everyone’s happy with that, because restoring the deltas to their former state means changing things from the way they’ve been for almost 70 years.

Inevitably, that will mean changing the salinity in the water and pushing people who have become used to catching speckled trout, redfish, shrimp and oysters in one spot, and moving them further and further away from the waters where they make their living.

Captain George Ricks is a charter fisherman and President of the Save Louisiana Coalition, which has been the most vocal and largest group opposing sediment diversions.

Bob Marshall: What do these diversions do? And why do you think this is bad for the state?

George Ricks: Well, the magnitude of the amount of river water that they want to pour into the marsh is going to have a devastating effect on the fishing industries, our seafood industries, our oyster industries, that Louisiana relies so heavily upon. The CPRA [Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority] makes no bones about the fact that coastal communities will be displaced and that sacrifices will have to be made — and most of these sacrifices to be made will be at the expense of the commercial and recreational fishing industries that took such a hard hit from the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.

Bob Marshall: Well, the argument from the state is, after studying all the ways to try to rebuild the coast — rebuild these sinking basins around New Orleans and southeast Louisiana specifically — is that diversions long-term are the most cost efficient, and most efficient way… And that, true, some people will be displaced — but that you can move, and they will help you move. In the case of oyster fishermen, they’ll help them relocate to oyster grounds further south. Recreational fishermen and charter boat people like yourself will just have to run several miles farther to find speckled trout and redfish.

George Ricks: It will not be several miles, Bob. You’re talking about the Breton Sound, and the Barataria estuary, which are two of the largest and most productive estuaries in the world. If the fish can’t migrate into the estuary in the springtime of the year, when the juvenile stages of all marine life has to get into that estuary, they won’t survive. There will be no such thing as moving further to catch them — they won’t be able to reproduce.

A little bit of fresh water is good, river water; you need a diversity in the ecosystem, like mother nature used to do, that’s why the estuary was formed. But when you flood the estuary with that amount of fresh water from the river — including its pollutants, its nitrates from the fertilizers, everything that’s in the river — you’re going to do more harm than good.

Bob Marshall: Well, by rebuilding, by putting diversions up over time, over decades, they will rebuild these wetlands and the nurseries you’re talking about — they’ll remain brackish because of the Gulf tides. They’ll be further south, but there will be estuaries for the growth of the larval stages of redfish and speckled trout and flounder and whatever. But if these things aren’t done, according to all the surveys and science, then the marsh you have left will soon be gone, so your estuaries will be gone anyway.

So, what is your solution? You’re losing the estuaries you want to protect — you’re losing them at the fastest rate of sea level rise on the planet, right there in that basin where you fish. By the end of the century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you can expect five-and-a-half feet of relative sea level rise because this area is sinking — because the delta is starving — at the same rate that the ocean is rising. If you nothing, all that will be open water. You’ll have no fisheries production. So what’s your solution?

George Ricks: Our solution is dredging. Now, they say it’s too expensive, it’s too cost-prohibitive. But the biggest expense in dredging is laying down the pipelines and picking them up and moving them.

We have a plan, and we’re working with Plaquemines Parish and Dr. Joseph Suhayda in developing a plan — a permanent sediment trunk [of] pipelines laid in the marsh that can pump sediment to specific areas where it’s needed. Work from the outside in, you need your barriers, your barrier islands built first — you want to stop your storm surge from coming from the outside in, not from the inside out.

Bob Marshall: The Master Plan already spends more money on dredging and fill projects than it has planned for diversions. So you’re saying that you have the science, or that your consultants have the science, to show that there is enough sediment in the river? And there’s enough money to build land 20, 30, 40 miles out, and to keep doing that in perpetuity?

George Ricks: They just proved that at the Shell Island project in Plaquemines — a 27 mile pipeline, they built an island in four days, they had a bulldozer running on it in four days.

Now, they say it’s cost prohibitive, it’s too expensive... But when you take into consideration a $4.1 billion-a-year commercial and recreational fishing industry — $350 million a year in state and local tax revenues that it brings in, thousands of families — their livelihoods will be gone, shot down.

You said yourself, in the beginning, that Louisiana would have to move these families and the oysters. How much is that going to cost?That’s not figured into the cost of these diversions.

Bob Marshall: So what are your group’s plans going forward? The Master Plan has passed the legislature unanimously twice. The CPRA has to present the Plan, which is adaptive management. They include the latest science, maybe some revisions — they refine it every five years. The Legislature can’t go in and change it, it has to vote either up or down — that’s to keep politicians out of the science. So, what are your plans? Do you think you can get enough votes to stop the Master Plan?

George Ricks: We don’t want to stop the Master Plan —

Bob Marshall: Or to change it?

George Ricks: Right. We want to change. We want them to take these large scale river diversions and look at them, and say, “Wait a minute, this could be very, very harmful.” The thing is, Bob, they’ve spent millions of dollars so far on hydro-dynamic studies and engineering and building these diversions, but they’ve never put one dollar in the socio-economic study of how they’re going to affect families and the coastal communities. Not one dollar. Now, you would think that would be the first thing that would be done.

Bob Marshall: Okay, so what are your plans to combat this? It’s a part of  the plan — it’s a central part of the plan — how do you get this to stop?

George Ricks: We are working with the Parish governments — both the Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish governments. We have the complete support of both of those Parish Councils and the Parish Presidents. We have developed an alternative plan to present to our legislators and say, listen, this can work and it’s not as expensive as some have said.

We can have both, Bob; we can have our resources, we won’t be displacing families, we won’t be putting people out of work and ruin a culture and a heritage that is Louisiana. There is a better way, and it’s not as expensive as the state would lead you to believe.

Bob Marshall: Well, Captain George Ricks, from the Save Louisiana Coalition — thank you for joining us today.

George Ricks: Thank you, Bob. It’s a pleasure.

Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.

The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.

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