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Nation & World

Louisiana Is Facing A Coastal Restoration Conundrum

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Louisiana is trying to save its coast. The state is suffering one of the highest rates of land loss in the world - the equivalent of a football field disappearing every hundred minutes. Now a plan to divert the Mississippi River to help build back land is getting pushback from coastal communities, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Robert Campo is in the hold of a boat, emptying the day's harvest of live shrimp from Lake Borgne near New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ELLIOTT: He sells it for bait at Campo's Marina in Shell Beach, a spit of land mostly surrounded by water.

ROBERT CAMPO: This is the cat's meow for fishing, you understand? Where we are here, we're in God's country, and that's why it's so important to keep this the way it is.

ELLIOTT: Keep it salty is what he means. Campo has posted a stop the diversion sign at the marina, part of a maritime business first started by his great-grandfather in 1903.

CAMPO: We're born with saltwater in our veins.

ELLIOTT: He's fighting the state's plan to use more than $2 billion in restoration money from the BP oil disaster to divert freshwater from the Mississippi River into bayous and marshes. The intent is to get river sediment rebuilding land. Campo says the influx would render Shell Beach a ghost town. His offshore oyster leases wouldn't survive, and other species found here would be driven farther out toward the Gulf of Mexico.

CAMPO: It's just not fair to go put people's lives and their heritage and everything else and say, well, you're going to have to go do something else. I'm 52 years old. I've been in this business all of my life. This is all I know how to do.

ELLIOTT: Campo favors other coastal restoration methods, such as dredging, to build up barrier islands. But conservation groups say large-scale diversions are the best hope for saving Louisiana's disappearing coast. They've teamed up to form the coalition to restore the Mississippi River Delta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE HUMMING)

ELLIOTT: To show how the diversions will work, we head out by boat on the Back Levee Canal in Plaquemines Parish, just south of New Orleans.

DAVID MUTH: OK. We're coming up on Mardi Gras Pass.

ELLIOTT: Mardi Gras Pass is where, during floods in 2011 and '12, the Mississippi River cut a channel through the natural levee and washed out a road. Now it's a wide waterway connecting to the Back Levee Canal and bays and bayous beyond. David Muth is director of gulf restoration at the National Wildlife Federation.

MUTH: This demonstrates the principle that if you poke a hole in the levee and let water out, you will start building land.

ELLIOTT: Muth says decades of controlling the river with levees and flood protection structures have choked off the sediment that would naturally nourish the Mississippi Delta. The diversions are intended to restore that cycle. Conservationists estimate that over 10 years, Mardi Gras Pass has created more than a hundred acres of vegetated wetlands. Moving south of the pass, you can see the difference along the shoreline - willow trees growing where it was once only marsh grass.

TODD MASSON: Wow.

ELLIOTT: Journalist Todd Masson is along on the trip. He writes for Louisiana Sportsman magazine.

MASSON: This is pretty striking because I haven't been down here in many years, and to see the transformation of this place is truly mind-boggling. This was wide-open water not very long ago.

ELLIOTT: Open water where you'd catch mostly saltwater fish - speckled trout, for instance. That's not the case now.

MASSON: The fishing's definitely different. Nobody could claim it isn't.

ELLIOTT: But it's not worse, he says. In a 10-minute span, he lands a largemouth bass, a freshwater fish. And then...

MASSON: There he is.

ELLIOTT: A redfish more than 2 feet long jumps out of the water.

MASSON: Oh, that's a big red. So now, this is a saltwater fish that we just caught - what? - maybe a hundred yards from that largemouth bass.

ELLIOTT: While the fresher water means you can now catch bass and redfish in the same place, it also means other species are being pushed closer to the Gulf - oysters, dolphins and brown shrimp. And that's what's drawing opposition from local governments. St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, where the big river diversions are planned, have both voted to oppose them. St. Bernard council member Kerri Callais says the promise of building 21 square miles of land over 50 years is not a good trade-off for their economy.

KERRI CALLAIS: We don't think it's worth losing our industry, our culture, our heritage. You know, it's about the people that have been here for generations, and, you know, it's what makes us who we are.

ELLIOTT: The diversions are pending approvals from state and federal regulators. If permits move forward, Callais says opposition groups are ready to sue to stop them. There's got to be a better solution, says Plaquemines councilman Richie Blink. He operates ecotours in the Mississippi River Delta and says the system is on life support and needs the diversions. But Blink says the state should do more to help displaced workers adapt.

RICHIE BLINK: I think the people here need to be open-minded and willing to accept that we live in a delta. And it's a very dynamic place, and it changes. And we need to change along with it if we're going to survive in this place. Also, we need to have a state government that is open-eared and open-minded and willing to hear the pleas of the people and help us change along with the ecosystem.

ELLIOTT: Blink says Plaquemines Parish has already lost nearly half of its land area, so the question of adapting is an existential one.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Plaquemines Parish, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.