Louisiana Coastal Restoration Grants Welcome News, But Only a Short-Term Solution

Sediment pumping and manmade marsh restoration are only temporary solutions to a long-term problem

11-03-2011 // Craig Guillot
West Bay diversion

In late September, the Secretary of Commerce announced $102 million in grants for three projects to restore deteriorated wetlands and barrier island habitats in Louisiana. The restoration efforts involve pumping sediment to barrier island shores, rebuilding marshes and reinforcing shorelines in areas where precious land is eroding at a rapid pace.

While it’s a step in the right direction and welcome news to many, coastal advocates say it’s a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Such restoration projects can only be sustained by the permanent and natural land-replenishing impacts of freshwater diversions from the Mississippi River.

Investing to restore marsh and barrier islands

The grant money will go toward marsh and dune restoration on Pelican Island, in the West Belle Pass barrier headlands and in the Bayou Dupont area.

Chuck Perrodin, public information officer for the Louisiana Office of Coastal Restoration and Protection said the $43.1 million grant for Pelican Island is the largest grant NOAA has ever awarded for coastal restoration. Situated east of the port town of Empire in Plaquemines Parish, Pelican Island is a small barrier island of less than 1,100 acres. While it is an important nesting ground for birds, it is suffering the same fate of many rapidly-vanishing barrier islands due to sea level rise, oil and gas activity and the navigation channel at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which prevents sediment from reaching the barrier islands and headlands.

The project will restore 2.4 miles of shoreline through sediment pumping and will eventually create 1,340 acres of marsh and 264 acres of dunes and berms.

“We're very pleased because these are the kinds of projects we need to be doing, it’s just that we need to be doing more of them,” Perrodin said.

One of the other projects includes $28.6 million worth of sand pumping for beach and marsh restoration at West Belle Pass barrier headland. The plans call for rebuilding 5,300 feet of beach and 227 acres of marsh habitat where the erosion on the headland is dramatic.

“That shoreline has been retreating at one of the fastest rates in the nation, 100 feet per year in some areas. It’s just vanishing,” he said.

For the Bayou Dupont area, a $30 million grant has been made to rebuild marsh and construct an 11,000-foot-long protective ridge. That ridge will also be seeded with vegetation so that it not only serves as a buffer from flooding but a home for wildlife.

Paul Kemp, vice president of the Louisiana Coastal Initiative for the National Audubon Society, said barrier island restoration is critical for protecting the rest of Louisiana’s coast and marshland. Kemp said sand pumping is a good temporary contribution to island restoration because it is scaleable and provides concrete results with naturally abundant materials.

All three projects had already been planned and designed by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) but were waiting funding. David Muth, Louisiana state director of NWF’s Coastal Louisiana Campaign, said this could be the start of a trend of putting more investments into fewer but larger projects. Instead of running a dozen small projects with small, scattered impacts, programs could now focus on bigger projects with larger cumulative results.

“These types of projects have been effective by pumping in sand from sources some distance from the barrier islands and putting it back into the system. They’re sand-starved systems and this puts it back in there,” Muth said.

Short-term solutions to a long-term problem

While many coastal advocates say the investments and projects are welcome news, they say sediment pumping and manmade marsh restoration are only temporary solutions to a long-term problem. Kemp said the projects represent a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done in coastal Louisiana. They protect small parts of estuaries but do not truly restore the coast because the sediment deposits are one-time additions. They too will slowly start eroding as soon as they’re put in place.

“The sand is going to end up in the bottom of the basin eventually. It’s a temporary measure,” Kemp said. “I think we’ll see additional funding but the question is if it’s going to be put to more sustainable projects.”

Those sustainable projects are the diversions that Muth has been calling for. Before levees encased the Mississippi River in the early 1900s, the state’s wetlands were nurtured by the natural flow of the river's distributaries, and by annual spring overflow of its banks. Floods would carry river sediment down to the wetlands and the coast where it sustained and created land. The flow of freshwater also helps prevent saltwater intrusion which kills some of the plants that hold the shoreline in place.

Muth said well-designed and strategically-placed diversions could help restore some of that natural balance and bring freshwater and sediment to the coast. When combined with the current barrier island restoration projects, diversions can help create a more sustainable solution by keeping a steady flow of sediment into the system. Because the river rises every spring and brings with it a tremendous amount of sediment, one well-designed diversion could create more land than a dozen sediment pumping projects.

“In the long run, unless you start rebuilding marsh by major diversions from the Mississippi River, you are fighting a loosing battle,” Muth said. “We need to fix the underlying problems with the system.”

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