Freshwater diversions not without controversy

Kevin Schilling said flatly that having the freshwater diversion is “the key” the Caernarvon bass fishery.

“It may have been OK before, but it really took off after the diversion,” Schilling said. “Saltwater fisherman may hate diversions because they push their fish out, but bass fishermen love them. They are vital and create diversity.

“All the pros in the Bassmasters tournament ran here.”

To say that river diversions in Southeast Louisiana are controversial is a massive understatement. Not counting bass fishermen, most involved people fall into two camps, with no middle ground between them.

Proponents — generally marsh restoration specialists and those they have influenced — claim huge benefits from the projects. A Louisiana Department of Natural Resources report on the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Project, for example, lists average annual benefits from the diversion at $8,706,000 for fish and wildlife and $449,000 for recreation, totaling $9.155 million.

A DNR report on the project’s first three years claimed increased commercial and recreational fisheries production, as well as benefits to fur-bearing animals, alligators and migratory waterfowl.

Opponents of the project come from a broad base — in short, anyone who fishes for anything found in salt water. Initially opponents were mostly commercial shrimpers and oyster lease holders who worked in the marshes of St. Bernard and upper Plaquemines parishes.

Originally visualized as a method to reduce salinity levels and therefore oyster predator numbers, freshwater diversions went from problem solution to just plain problem for oyster farmers when diversions were seized upon by coastal restoration specialists as the ultimate method to save Louisiana’s coast.

The late William “Buster” Kass, who was an oyster industry spokesman likened the oyster industry’s situation to that of a little boy who spent all year praying for lots of Christmas gifts: On the night before Christmas, Santa appeared with a dump truck of gifts and buried the little boy beneath so many gifts that it killed him.

However, recent opposition to the projects has not been from commercial fishing representatives, but rather from recreational fishing interests. One of the foremost has been charter fishing guide George Ricks, who called the changes caused by Caernarvon “staggering.”

The DNR report on the project’s first three years trumpets the diversion’s construction of 406 acres of marsh. Ricks strongly refuted those benefits in a 2013 interview published in the Times-Picayune.

“If you want to get an idea of the marsh deterioration, go to Google Earth and look at it,”Ricks said. “You can start at 1998 and take it all the way through to today.

“The biggest land loss is in the area closest to the diversion.”

Of course, Ricks’ opposition is not based on the project’s ineffectiveness at building marsh, but on the displacement of fish species important to saltwater anglers. Ricks feels that the displacement effects of Caernarvon (at 8,000 cubic feet per second) will be dwarfed by the diversions in the planning stage: Violet (5,000 cfs), Black Bay (50,000 cfs), Braithwaite (250,000 cfs), White Ditch (5,000 cfs), Myrtle Grove (50,000 cfs) and Empire (50,000 cfs).

Ricks’ concerns echo the results of a 2011 paper published in Geophysical Research Letters. Author Michael Kearney, a coastal scientist at the University of Maryland, and two other scientists analyzed satellite images of the areas of three freshwater diversions: Caernarvon, Naomi, and West Pointe a la Hache.

They found that, through 2009, marsh area had not grown significantly at the diversion sites and that the diversion regions suffered more damage during Hurricane Katrina than other areas, apparently due to freshwater plants being more fragile than brackish-water plants.

In a 2011 online article in Nature International Journal of Science Christopher Swarzenski, a wetland biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey agreed with Kearney’s contentions.

“There is no science to say that (freshwater diversions) will sustain wetlands or prevent wetland loss or build wetlands, which are the three objectives,” Swarzenski wrote.

Garret Graves, the former outspoken chair of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority called the coast’s current salinity patterns “unnatural” and “in a degraded state” in the 2013 Times-Picayune article, adding that freshwater diversions are vital.

“If fishermen must go a little farther down the basin to catch trout for us to save lives and homes, then that is a small price to pay,” Graves said.

All arguments aside, however, the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Project created a heck of a largemouth bass fishery.

About Jerald Horst 959 Articles
Jerald Horst is a retired Louisiana State University professor of fisheries. He is an active writer, book author and outdoorsman.

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