In St. Bernard Parish, fishers wary of Louisiana's plan to save coast

Mar 29, 2017

Along Louisiana 46 near Shell Beach, dead trees still line the old Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, closed since 2009. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the channel in the 1960s as a shortcut for big ships between the Gulf of Mexico and the Industrial Canal, but St. Bernard Parish fishers blame it for killing cypress trees and speeding erosion of the marsh that historically buffered their communities from storm surge.

That left them suspicious of anyone tinkering with the marsh, which is one reason they are wary of Louisiana's current plan to restore St. Bernard's coast and protect it from hurricanes. State coastal officials make no claim that Louisiana's 50-year, $50 billion master plan will save the entire coast; there will be winners and losers. And St. Bernard fishers are concerned they will once again be the latter.

A sticker on the front door of Campo's Marina in Shell Beach reads "Stop River Diversions." Robert Campo, grandson of local legend Frank "Blackie" Campo, thinks that if the state moves forward with its plan to build new east bank marsh with sediment diverted from the Mississippi River, it will convert the brackish marsh into almost saltless freshwater, and the bait shop that's been in his family for four generations will go out of business.

Of the 20 parishes in Louisiana's coastal zone, St. Bernard is projected to be among the biggest losers to sea level rise and land subsidence. Without intervention, the authors of the plan say, 72 percent of the parish would be lost over the next 50 years. Carrying out the projects in the latest iteration of the plan would reduce the loss to 41 percent, more than any parish.

One of the major projects could create more than 50,000 acres of marsh by building a complex diversion structure on the river near Wills Point, on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish about 13 miles downriver from Caernarvon. This would allow river water and sediment to flow into the Breton Sound estuary during times when a large amount of sediment is suspended in the water.

State officials say the diversion would be operated at its full capacity, 35,000 cubic feet per second, only during high-river periods that occur once every few years. Much smaller amounts of water and sediment, if any, would flow through the structure at other times.

Before the structure is completed, the state must develop a comprehensive operating plan to balance the diversion's effects on fisheries with its ability to build land. That the diversion will affect fisheries -- especially oysters and white and brown shrimp -- is a given. But the effects on individual species, and on the fishers whose livelihoods rely on them, has not been assessed. That will come when the Corps of Engineers prepares its environmental impact statement on the Mid-Breton diversion.

In the meantime, state officials continue to push forward with the project. The Mid-Breton diversion is one of five coastal protection projects that Gov. John Bel Edwards asked President Donald Trump to fast-track through the environmental permitting process.

Parish President Guy McInnis said he's working with the state to try to get the study done sooner. "I would like to see the environmental impact study done ahead of the payments for construction," he said.

Two previous studies have cast doubts on the prospects for the fisheries if river sediment is diverted to the marsh:

  • A 2013 report by the University of New Orleans' Department of Biological Science found that the amount of freshwater needed to carry suspended sediment into the marsh will push optimal conditions for oysters seaward, beyond the existing reefs.
  • A study published in February in the journal Ecological Modelling put it this way: "The ideal discharge rates for coastal wetland restoration versus management of oyster and other fishery species appear to be incompatible, and unfortunately, damages to oyster fishery by large-scale diversions for restoring coastal wetlands seem inevitable."
  • And both studies indicated that for oyster harvesting to continue in Louisiana at historic levels, a massive and unprecedented effort to relocate private leases and restore oyster bottoms would be required. There aren't currently any projects in the coastal master plan to move oyster leases, however. Hasse said the issue might be addressed in the corps' environmental impact statement of the Mid-Breton diversion proposal.

Adding to the frustration of St. Bernard fishers is that the science behind building a marsh with diverted sediment is still new and has not yet been demonstrated. Bren Haase, planning director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, admits as much, but he said that the latest scientific projections show the diversion will work.

"We've done an extensive amount of work," he said. "All indications are that they will be successful at creating and maintaining land."

Indeed, Ehab Meselhe, natural systems director at The Water Institute of the Gulf, said the computer models used to show the land-building capabilities of a sediment diversion near Wills Point have accurately reproduced real life scenarios.

Still, some analysts say more study is needed of the benefits and shortcomings of diversion. As recently as October, The Water Institute's own expert panel on diversion planning and implementation, which was created to provide independent advice on projects along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, said: "Lack of socio-economic data is the most pressing need. ... It is critically important to focus data collection on vulnerable segments of communities, either due to proximity to the diversion or by the sector impacted."

The fisheries are important and tie into the socio-economic outcomes, said the panel's chair, John Wells, the dean and director of Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "There is so much controversy. It affects people their livelihoods, where they're going to live. My sense has been throughout the process of the panel meeting that there was a lot of debate," he said. "And, whether that leads to any sort of paralysis moving forward, I think it's certainly possible." A socio-economic study will likely need to be a part of the environmental impact study as it's probably too late to do one before then, Wells said.

Whatever the outcome, Campo hopes to hang on in Shell Beach - not just to make money but to fulfill his family's destiny. "All and all we made a promise to my grandpa, his great grandpa, to keep this thing going as long as we could," he said, gesturing to his oldest son. "You're here until you're not here. That's how my great grandpa did it. That's how my grandpa did it. I'm sure that's how my dad is going to do it.

"And if we don't have diversions putting us out of business, that's how I'm going to go down, too."