With speckled trout and redfish action that is unrivaled in the country, with clouds of ducks filling the skies most winters, with near-shore waters that teem with cobia, dolphin and snapper, Louisiana is rightly dubbed the Sportsman’s Paradise.
But the marsh that serves as the very foundation for those staggering fish and game stocks is disappearing, and in many places it’s totally gone. Unless serious, costly and painful steps are taken within the next five years, the Sportsman’s Paradise will become Paradise Lost.
Ask 20 scientists what’s the quickest and surest way to save the Louisiana coast, and you’ll get 20 different answers. Actually, you may get 40 different answers.
And that’s proved to be a stumbling block in the quest to accomplish what all agree needs to be done — salvation for the soupy edge of the Bayou State.
“We don’t know everything,” said life-long conservationist Kerry St. Pe. “There is no master plan that’s guaranteed to work, but there is a general feeling of what needs to be done.”
Squabbling and in-fighting are hallmarks of Louisiana politics. Balkanized leaders are used to scratching and clawing to get their bread buttered, even if it means stepping on a neighbor’s loaf.
But that mindset needs to change if Louisiana has any hope of rescuing the marsh, which is the very lifeblood of the entire state’s economy — and it needs to change fast.
“The window to turn the tide (on the coastal land-loss) is within the next gubernatorial term,” St. Pe said. “We don’t have another eight years. We need a leader who will bring the DNR, the DWF, the DEQ — all the agencies that are involved — under one head and say, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing, and this is how we’re going to do it.’”
St. Pe, head of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, agrees with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s Mark Davis and other coastal leaders that Louisiana’s land-loss crisis will never be taken seriously nationally until it is the No. 1 issue on the hearts and minds of the state’s citizens and political leaders.
Federal support is crucial because Louisiana has no hope of paying the $14 billion price tag to sustain and even repair the coast on its own.
But that money won’t come, St. Pe said, unless Louisiana’s residents sign off on a specific plan to spend it in a way that will be cost-effective and most beneficial.
“We cannot have a plan that won’t be supported by our people,” he said. “We have to convey to a congressman from North Dakota how much we need this money. If (the plan) is not supported by the people of Louisiana, we may not get the votes of our own congressmen, much less one from North Dakota.”
The next governor will need to rally support for such a plan, St. Pe said.
There actually is a master plan in existence called Coast 2050 that was developed by state and federal leaders in 1998. The feasibility of Coast 2050 is currently being examined as part of the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) Comprehensive Study.
But, St. Pe stressed, funding is the key issue. Even the small projects in Coast 2050 are expensive, and the largest proposed project — the Third Delta Conveyance Channel — will cost $2 billion to construct.
The proposed plan for this massive project is to divert 200,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of river water near the town of Donaldsonville and channel it into the Barataria and Terrebonne estuaries.
But the Third Delta Conveyance Channel is merely a piece of the puzzle, and is certainly not a panacea, St. Pe said.
In addition to that project, his organization would like to see sediment-rich water from the bottom of the river pumped into various sites across the coast via pipelines.
“We pump crude oil all over the world through pipelines,” he said. “What we’re talking about is transporting sediments the consistency of crude oil into the marsh to build land.”
St. Pe said the base for the Lafitte-Larose Highway was pumped in from the river via pipelines, as was the land that now makes up the English Turn community.
“Coastal restoration is not near as hard as we make it out to be,” he said. “The human factor is the hard part. We have enough engineering capability and enough science know-how to make this happen.”
These piped sediments could be pumped in to restore pre-erosion ridges, which are keys to stopping coastal degradation, St. Pe said.
“We had a system out here where the ridges played a critical role in protecting the marshes. I’m not talking about spoil banks. There’s a big difference; spoil banks cause ponding where it’s not supposed to be, which destroys the marsh,” he said. “But these ridges served a vital role, and there’s a natural template out there for us to follow.”
St. Pe is referring to maps from the 1950s and ’60s that show the cheniers and other relief in the coastal marshes. One of the tenets of a coastal-restoration plan, in his opinion, needs to be to restore those ridges in their proper locations.
“We’re not going to get enough money to go back to the 1930s, but maybe we can restore the marsh to the 1950s or 1970s,” he said.
If we do, it’ll be because we funded and used sediment diversions like the Third Delta Conveyance Channel and the smaller sediment-pumping pipelines, he said.
“Davis Pond is great. It’ll protect some land, but it’s not intended to build land, and it won’t,” he said. “Water diversions are not enough. We need sediment diversions.”