Our Views: Long-term plan for coastal diversion projects

When Mother Nature gives you an opportunity, you’ve got to be in position to take advantage of it.

Now, with the Mississippi River hitting its crest in January, another high-water event will not be of much help to Louisiana’s endangered coastline.

Because of the long lead time needed for diversion projects, it’s the second time in five years that a lot of silt-laden water will pass down into the Gulf of Mexico without being used, in part, for marsh restoration.

The giant 2011 flood did not help, nor did this year’s high-water event.

“It is frustrating when you look at the satellite images of this event and the 2011 event and see the amount of sediment that the river carries,” said Chip Kline, acting executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities.

The goal of major diversions of silt-laden water into marshes has been part of coastal restoration planning for decades and, in fact, was recognized as needed even during the levee construction of the 1920s. But the diversion projects themselves are huge construction programs with long lead times.

In the past five years, the scientific and engineering knowledge about diversions that direct sediment from the river into surrounding marshes has advanced, but the state is still years away from construction, said John Lopez, of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

“Things are coming together, but it’s unfortunate it’s not faster despite many people’s effort,” Lopez said. “Basically, our capacity to take advantage of this high water is the same as 2011. Why? The wheels of progress are slow.”

Lopez said sediments are needed farther north than the existing openings in the lower river.

True, but the nature of freshwater diversion projects is that they will take time and funding to develop. The issues involved include not only cutting through federal levees but crossing roads, railroads and perhaps pipelines in the way.

Our state government has made commendable pledges to pour new money into coastal projects. Revenue-sharing from the oil business in the Gulf of Mexico is to be committed to these projects, as is the bulk of the legal settlement from the 2010 oil spill.

Louisiana will receive $6.8 billion from oil giant BP for the 2010 disaster that spilled millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf.

“We have a strong (coastal master) plan with wide support and the political will,” said Kimberly Davis Reyher, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “We’re positioned to succeed, but how quickly can we move is the question I have.”

Not fast enough for this year’s floods, obviously. But we believe the state’s commitments — if followed through, over a period of years — can one day reap larger coastal restoration benefits from river diversions. It is incumbent on state leaders to keep that long-term goal in mind and not divert the money instead.

More Stories