As Flood Waters Recede, New Land Appears in West Bay

By David Muth, National Wildlife Federation

Alisha Renfro (Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation) and Jim Tripp (Senior Counsel, Environmental Defense Fund) standing on newly-built land in West Bay.

On June 22, members of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign visited the West Bay Sediment Diversion site to make a preliminary assessment of effects of the great Mississippi River flood of 2011. What they found exceeded expectations. Standing where flood water had risen to waist deep level or even deeper, they now stood in ankle deep water on a hard sand bottom. Based on this observation, there is every expectation that when the Mississippi flood waters completely recede, new land will emerge in the delta and marsh plants will begin to colonize it.

The West Bay Sediment Diversion Project, which began as one of the great early hopes of the Coastal Wetland Planning, Protection, and Restoration Authority (CWPPRA) program, recently has become a problem child, derided as a failure, and blamed on dubious evidence for causing shoaling in an anchorage downriver. The concept was simple: to build a bigger version of the many uncontrolled artificial crevasses that have been used quite successfully – 50,000 cubic feet per second, equal to the volume of several Colorado Rivers – on a very small scale, to sustain the sinking Bird’s Foot Delta over the last few decades.

However, when rapid emergence of land failed to materialize as it had on so many smaller projects, diversion skeptics pounced, claiming it proved that large-scale sediment diversions could not work quickly enough to help save coastal Louisiana. For a host of reasons, those criticisms were unjustified. Unfortunately, the navigation issue, which had driven up the cost of the project because it required that additional dredging be covered by CWPPRA, seemed to be the nail in the coffin. As a result, the CWPPRA Task Force has voted to de-authorize and close the diversion, killing the project.

Fortunately, the reports of death were premature. CWPPRA now will be faced with a dilemma: the diversion is working, rebuilding marsh that disappeared over the last 50 years. In addition, it is saving precious sediment from drifting into the deep gulf and being wasted. How can the Coastal Wetland Restoration Authority kill a project that is building marsh?