The Mid-Barataria Sediment Division — Saving Southeastern Louisiana’s Wetlands
Louisiana has been losing its wetlands due to erosion, climate change, and other factors for 80 years now and there is one project that could help not only save our wetlands but build new ones. The project is called the Mid-Barataria Sediment Division.
The Army Corps of Engineers has released its Environmental Impact Statement for The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, which will be using the Mississippi River to restore Louisiana’s rapidly vanishing wetlands, which are vital to the ecosystem as well as protecting us from hurricanes.
I spoke with Dr. Alisha Renfro, who is a coastal scientist with the National Wildlife Federation and is working on the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign. She explained to me that our state has been experiencing land loss for almost 80 years — which is something I remember learning about in high school. I remember my teachers saying that one day our coast will either be gone or forever changed.
However, if folks such as Dr. Renfro and the team of engineers and scientists working on this succeed, they can prevent the worst from happening. It should be noted that once complete, the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion will be the largest ever in the history of the United States.
Dr. Renfro explained to me that the Mid-Barataria Sediment Division will be built into the Mississippi River levee and can be opened and closed to divert freshwater, sediment, and nutrients out into the Barataria Basin. This will enable the creation of new wetlands while sustaining the existing wetlands in our region.
She explained that our levee system, which is vital for our survival, is causing the loss of the sediments that helped create and sustain Louisiana’s wetlands. “We’ve lost almost two thousand square miles of land, due to various things like rising sea level storm events. But one of the big reasons for this loss is that we’ve leveed the Mississippi River,” Dr. Renfro told me over the phone. Levees are critical for cities such as Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and New Orleans, especially when the rivers reach flood stage.
In 2015, the areas near the Red River in my hometown of Shreveport as well as Bossier City, LA (across the river) were underwater due to extreme flooding. Caddo and Bossier Parishes were both flooded as the river crested over 37 feet, the highest it had ever reached. Usually, its peak is between 6 and 9 feet above flood stage. This is why levees are critical.
The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is currently under construction but the final phase will start in 2022 or 2023. “And then it’ll probably take about five years to actually construct the project to build the gates into the river levee.” So, if all goes to plan and combinations of pandemics and natural disasters don’t throw in wrenches, we could possibly looking at 2030 or even later before it starts to become operational — just my own guess.
The Importance Of Ecosystems
Hurricanes are not fun, and since we both live in the beautiful state of Louisiana, that topic came up. I actually had a bit of a nightmare last night about hurricanes and that we had one in March. Glad that hasn’t come true. Hurricane season will be starting soon and these storms are seriously devastating, one reason why our wetlands are critical.
“One of the reasons why these kinds of ecosystem restoration products are really important is because, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, that sometimes levees alone are enough. And we actually need a healthy ecosystem out in front of those levees to provide better protection to communities. So rebuilding and keeping healthy wetlands is really important because our hurricane seasons can be brutal,” Dr. Renfro told me.
She shared her experience with Hurricane Zeta and I mentioned the winds of Delta. In her experience, the eye passed over her house. “I remember experiencing the eye of Hurricane Rita back in 2005. With Zeta, the eye passed right over me, which is the first time I can ever remember a distinct eye going over me. It was just a weird experience. And then I’m sitting there just listening,” she told me and described the experience as “the wind like Halloween by my house.”
When you take away the protection from wetlands, the damages from these storms are even worse. This why the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is important.
The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Is Up For Comment For Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan
Before the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority apply to the US Army Corps of Engineers for permits and permission to construct, maintain, and operate the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion. Once fully built and in operation, it will be located on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. The release of the DEIs is being followed by a public comment period that will offer both individuals and organizations an opportunity to get involved in the restoration process. The 60-day public review and comment period started on March 5 and ends on May 4, 2021. (Learn more about this here.)
I learned about this from Dr. Renfro, who shared that it’s one of the projects that was identified and selected in the plan. “It’s really kind of one of the lynchpin projects of getting back to, um, how we actually use all the settlement available in the river.”
Dr. Renfro explained the process of a short-term solution. “For years now, we have done a lot of restoration projects. Many of them are like dredging projects. We judge settlement from the river or in a basin to rebuild wetland, and that’s totally valid in a good way to do the restoration. But it is a short-term solution. We actually have to use the resource available to us. We have to use the Mississippi River.”
She noted that it’s the only thing that will help us hold onto the land at sea while facing the challenges of sea-level rise and hurricanes.
Featured image of the Red River facing Bossier City by Johnna Crider