The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, Louisiana’s largest-ever project to rebuild coastal land, was approved on Wednesday to receive $2.26 billion to move forward with construction, with work expected to begin on the unprecedented plans later this year.
The decision was issued by the federal-state panel that oversees BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration efforts in Louisiana. The money will come from settlement proceeds related to the 2010 spill.
In announcing its decision, the panel known as the Louisiana Trustees Implementation Group called the project “one of the largest and most innovative coastal habitat restoration efforts ever undertaken.” It is intended to slow the land loss devastating Louisiana’s coast, with more than 2,000 square miles disappearing over the last century — about the size of Delaware.
State officials hope to see construction begin in the months ahead. The state hired Archer Western-Alberici Joint Venture to oversee construction of the project in June 2018.
The diversion will release a maximum of 75,000 cubic feet per second of sediment and water from the Mississippi River into Barataria Bay near the town of Ironton in Plaquemines Parish for up to six months of the year. It is expected to create more than 21 square miles of new land during its first 50 years of operation, which by that time will represent 20% of the remaining wetlands in the basin due to continued land loss.
“Coastal Louisiana is home to natural resources, communities, and assets that our country simply cannot afford to lose, and this decision acknowledges its significance on a national scale and from every point of view,” said state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Chip Kline.
The funds include $378 million for mitigation of the diversion’s expected damage to existing oyster beds as well as to finfish, shrimp and crab fisheries. That money will also pay for a program aiming to deal with the approximately 2,200 bottlenose dolphins living in Barataria Bay that are expected to be killed within a year or two of the project’s start of operations.
It will also be used to help residents and businesses likely to experience higher water levels when the diversion is operated.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted permits to the state for the diversion in December after concluding that its operation would not violate the federal Clean Water Act, and that the two-mile-long channel would be designed not to impact the Mississippi River navigation channel and river and hurricane levees.
The project is vehemently opposed by a variety of commercial fisheries organizations because of the expected damage to their catch from the diversion’s freshwater. Some of the organizations have repeatedly threatened to file suit to block the project from being built, but no lawsuit has yet been filed.
The trustees group includes representatives of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, and Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, and departments of Wildlife & Fisheries, Natural Resources, and Environmental Quality.
The trustees funds are part of about $5 billion set aside to compensate for damages caused to wetlands, wildlife, fisheries and their use by the BP oil spill. Another $3 billion is set aside for similar projects in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Its decision concludes that the diversion will have “major, permanent, adverse impacts” sooner after it begins operating than if it were not built, because its freshwater will kill oysters on water bottoms now leased by the state to oyster growers. It points out that the losses may also occur over a longer period of time without the diversion, because of changes in salinity being caused by sea level rise fueled by global warming.
But it also points out that the changes in salinity resulting from the diversion could allow for the rehabilitation of historic oyster growing areas that are now too salty to grow oysters. And that because they are farther south in the basin, they’re likely to be less susceptible to sewage pollution.
The mitigation plan calls for spending $4 million to create a new public seed ground in the lower basin, and another $4 million to create or enhance new broodstock reefs. Another $15 million would be set aside over 10 years to assist existing leaseholders. Leaseholders also would be reimbursed for cultch or spat and shell placed on new leases.
Another $48 million will be used to develop alternative, off-bottom, oyster aquaculture in the basin and $1 million will be set aside for marketing of oysters.
The mitigation plan also includes $1 million for marketing aimed at finfish. Another $1 million would be used for marketing the area’s crab fishery and gear improvements.
A further $15 million will be set aside to address shrimp fishery improvements, including money for vessels and processing facilities, with the money distributed as grants over 10 years. Another $2 million would go to marketing of shrimp.
Wednesday’s decision did not give a dollar figure for bottlenose dolphin programs, but the state in the past said it planned on spending $60 million.
The dolphin plan will include experts reviewing potential intervention activities. Dolphin exposure to freshwater will likely be studied as the diversion begins operations to determine how they respond to intervention activities. Those could include herding dolphins away from low-salinity areas.