Louisiana’s proposed $2.5 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, designed to reconnect the Mississippi River with the Barataria Basin to create as much as 21 square miles of wetlands by 2070, was awarded key permits by the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday that could allow construction to begin in March 2023.
The approved environmental permits and a permit allowing the project to impact levees and shipping on the Mississippi River were announced in a news release on Monday afternoon.
The “record of decision” documents include a variety of special conditions the state must comply with during and after construction. The state must measure the effects of the diversion’s operation on fisheries, including threatened and endangered species; its effect on bottlenose dolphins and on rebuilt wetlands adjacent to the diversion; and any flooding impacts the project has on local communities. It must also assure that the diversion opening does not impact shipping.
Corps officials pointed out that the decision to issue permits for the project was not an endorsement of the project itself, but rather confirmation that the diversion was the least damaging of seven alternatives considered by the state, including a plan to do nothing and to allow the state’s coastline to continue to erode as climate change causes sea levels to rise.
“We take great care to neither endorse nor oppose any project when administering our regulatory authorities,” said Col. Cullen Jones, commander of the Corps’ New Orleans District office, in pointing out that the Corps was asked to issue permits for a state-requested project, and not to a project actually proposed or being built by the Corps itself. “Our responsibility is to use the science, engineering, technology and data available to make the best-informed decision.”
“The people that live and work in a project area know the area better than anyone,” said Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, commanding general for the Vicksburg-based Mississippi Valley Division, which includes the New Orleans district. “Their concerns and recommendations, along with that of our fellow local, state and federal cooperating agencies, were essential to our evaluation of topics such as the local environment, economics and environmental justice. Every comment received was considered and used in reaching the final decisions.”
The permits were approved by both Jones and Holland, after additional public comments were collected on a final version of an environmental impact statement released by the Corps in April that also concluded the project’s benefits outweighed its problems.
The project “represents a major step forward to restoring for injuries suffered by our coastal estuaries as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards in a news release after the Corps announcement. “Communities we feared could be removed from the map in 50 years will instead see thousands of acres of wetlands in the future that will provide them with natural and sustainable protection.”
“Today is the most important day in the history of our state’s coastal program and represents a turning point in the story of Louisiana’s coast,” added Chip Kline, chairman of the coastal authority, which will oversee the project, and Louisiana’s representative on the Louisiana Deepwater Horizon Trustees Implementation Group, which has approved spending up to $2.25 billion to build the diversion.
Kline said the state hopes to spend only an additional $1.9 billion on construction of the project, despite recent significant increases in the cost of similar major restoration projects.
The Corps decision also was praised by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, an organization whose members include representatives of businesses, environmental groups and residents of coastal communities.
“It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, so this is a huge moment for our entire state,” said Kim Reyher, the coalition’s executive director. “Finally, we are about to use the most important tool available to us: the mighty Mississippi.”
A key opponent of the project, Capt. George Ricks, president of the Save Louisiana Coalition, warned that a number of opponents, including fishers who fear their livelihoods — oyster farming and shrimp harvesting — could be destroyed by the freshwater delivered into Barataria Bay by the diversion.
“Our stance has always been that this project is not good for Louisiana, especially for our tourism, our seafood industry, our communities,” Ricks, a charter boat captain, said. He pointed out that at least one potential candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Billy Broadhurst, has already called for the project to be killed.
Ricks said he expects some of the opponents to challenge the Corps permits in federal court, once they have reviewed the permit restrictions placed on the state by the Corps.
Any lawsuit likely would also target the diversion’s expected effects on four families of bottlenose dolphins that now call the bay their home, totaling about 2,000 individual dolphins.
A final environmental impact statement on the diversion, released in April, concluded the project will provide significant future storm surge flooding reductions for New Orleans area west bank residents by creating nearly 21 square miles of new land through 2070.
The statement, however, also made clear that the concerns of fishers, and of those worried about dolphins, are mostly accurate. The statement also warned that some communities in lower Plaquemines Parish will be at greater risk of high water levels when the diversion is operating.
The state already has committed to spending $360 million on mitigation efforts aimed at both fishers and residents in danger of higher water levels as part of the project’s costs.
Part of that money will increase funds available for responding to dolphin illnesses and deaths, though biologists who study Gulf Coast dolphins say there’s little the state can do to get dolphins to stay out of their home territories, where they’ll remain in danger.
Mitigation efforts will include capturing endangered pallid sturgeon that move into the diversion when it’s opened and relocating them to the river. But the Corps record of decision points out that the state expects 97% of the four dolphin groups in the basin to be killed within the first year or so of its operation, and points out that the Marine Mammal Commission has said there’s no indication in the state’s mitigation plan for dolphins that guarantees a solution for that problem.