On Second Thought: Coastal project thought to have failed might be working after all

West Bay Diversion building land, Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority says.

By Fox8/John Snell

Spring flooding in the Mississippi River Valley system may have left behind loads of misery, but appears to have deposited a surprise near the mouth of the river.

One coastal restoration project – long thought to have been a dud – now appears to be working, according to coastal scientists who have viewed the West Bay Diversion.

In 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a hole in the levee six miles south of Venice and let the river loose.

“This is brand new land,” said Windell Curole, a levee district director and member of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.  “In Louisiana, stuff grows if you give it a chance.”

Surveying acres of new land, Curole points out the source of the sediment could have been anywhere from Canada or Montana to New York State.

“So, it took a ‘sedimental’ journey,” he said.

Geologist Paul Kemp believes it took some time for the river to adjust to the cut in the levee, time to begin scouring the river bottom and tapping into this other black gold.

“Where we’re standing was six feet deep this time last year,” Kemp said.

All this from a project that had been labelled a colossal failure.

Two years ago, the Corps blamed the West Bay Diversion for altering the Mississippi’s flow and silting in an anchorage for ocean-going ships.

Faced with the cost of dredging the anchorage — an estimated $120 million over 20 years — the federal and state task force overseeing the project decided to cut its losses and shut down West Bay, filling in the hole in the levee.

While that has yet to happen, a funny thing took place on the way to pulling the plug, or in this case, putting the plug back in: the diversion started working.

“We’ve got some new land here and I think the really cool question is why is it here?” said Alex Kolker, a researcher at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

Scientists concede they are not sure exactly what happened to suddenly turn on the land-building power of the river.

How much of a factor was the spring flooding?

Could the silt be coming from two other passes that also flow into the bay?

Or, did two small islands the Corps built with dredge material last year in some way slow the channel flow enough to allow silt to begin accumulating?

Then, there is a fierce debate over the issue of dreading the river for navigation.

“The question is, are we closing it for the right reason?” Kemp said.

The Corps’ own study found the diversion only partly to blame for the river silting, shifting some of the focus to two other channels dug in the 19th century.

“This is an awful lot of hard-fought land to waste from a habitat standpoint if there isn’t a good reason to close it,” Kemp said.

Many coastal advocates believe the project dramatizes the need to be honest and open with interests such as shipping and commercial seafood about how future projects will affect them.

“To do big restoration (in) coastal Louisiana, we’re gonna have to hurt some people,” Curole said. “But then, to survive, we need to do it.”

Curole conceded he does not know enough about the navigation issue to say whether the project should be closed, but he and other experts believe the new land should prompt another review.

“I wanna have the question answered about what is happening in this reach of the river,” said Kemp, vice-president of the Audubon Mississippi River Initiative.

Further complicating the issue is the Corps’ insistence, that while it has authority from congress to dredge the river channel for navigation, that authority does not cover dredging the ship anchorage.

“We would love to keep West Bay open,” said Garett Graves, the Coastal Protection Authority Chairman.

Graves said the state is asking the Corp to “go up the chain of command” again to decide if it will pay for the dredging.