Louisiana aims to unleash Mississippi River
by Russell McCulley
NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) - After being hemmed in by a complex system of levees for generations, the Mississippi River could soon be unleashed in an epic project to save Louisiana's rapidly eroding coastline.
The ambitious plan would create a series of gates that would control the release of silt-laden river water, which would sustain existing wetlands and rebuild some of those that have been buried by the encroaching Gulf of Mexico.
It will mimic the river's natural ebb and flow in some areas while keeping critical shipping channels open.
In a unanimous vote, state lawmakers signed off on the project Wednesday, which could take decades to implement and cost upwards of 50 billion dollars.
"This is the largest scale project of anything of this nature we have ever seen in this country," said King Milling, chairman of America's Wetland Foundation.
"It is costly, but the price of not doing it would be much greater."
The waters of 31 states flow into the Mississippi River, which has the third-largest drainage basin in the world behind only the Amazon and the Congo.
Once noted for the bandits that stalked its waters and hid on its islands, the Mississippi is now carefully controlled.
But the levees that protect the low-lying farms and cities of South Louisiana from flooding are also largely to blame for the erosion of the state's fragile coastline, which in turn has made the region more vulnerable to hurricane winds and storm surge.
The devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita nearly two years ago helped increase urgency about the dangers of coastal erosion and environmentalists were finally able to overcome objections from business interests.
"People are realizing now that if we don't do something, we're all going to lose," said Jon Porthouse, a member of the restoration authority's planning team.
"If we don't have a sustainable coastal landscape, which really goes back to the river, then nothing else really matters down here."
More than 15,000 acres per year are being swallowed by salt water, threatening entire communities and industries.
Levees are not the only factors in the state's wetland erosion.
Extensive oil and gas exploration and a widespread system of navigational canals have allowed salt water incursion to chew away at Louisiana's coastline for decades.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 dramatically accelerated the rate of loss. The storms claimed more than 200 square miles of land and damaged or destroyed approximately 200,000 homes.
The sudden devastation helped muffle objections from groups that had traditionally opposed drastic coastal restoration measures, including oil and gas exploration interests and fishers, who feared the incursion of fresh water into marshes would upset the balance of salt and fresh water where shrimp and oysters thrive.
The lower reaches of the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, are home to huge numbers of fish, water fowl and other wildlife, and an important stopover for migratory birds, including some threatened species.
But appeals for help restoring the vanishing coastline are increasingly being framed in economic terms.
Without the buffer against storm winds and surge that the wetlands provide, those lobbying for restoration say, Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production will be disrupted with increasing frequency.
And the 7,000 ships that pass through the Port of New Orleans each year carrying grain from the United States for export and bringing in steel, coffee and other goods, could be jeopardized.
"The whole country depends on the Mississippi River," said Port of New Orleans president Gary LaGrange.
Funding, however, could be the plan's biggest hurdle.
The state is hoping to use existing restoration funds and part of a budget surplus to start implementing the program immediately.
But federal aid will likely have to wait until at least next fall when the US Army Corps of Engineers is expected to present its recommendations to Congress.
Hat tip: The Dead Pelican