[StBernard] $2.9 billion plan restores MR-GO's environmental damage

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Fri Dec 17 08:04:11 EST 2010

$2.9 billion plan restores MR-GO's environmental damage

Published: Thursday, December 16, 2010, 10:06 PM Updated: Thursday,
December 16, 2010, 11:14 PM

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune

The Army Corps of Engineers has unveiled a sweeping $2.9 billion plan to
restore the environmental damage caused by the construction and operation of
the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which includes a new
freshwater diversion near Violet; restoration of cypress swamp in wetlands
adjacent to the Lower 9th Ward, Algiers and Chalmette; protection of
shorelines along the eastern New Orleans land bridge; and restoration or
nourishment of wetlands along Lake Borgne.

The proposed diversion would first move Mississippi River water and sediment
into the Central Wetlands Unit, which is sandwiched between the 40 Arpent
Canal and the levee along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the MR-GO. The
water would then flow out into the MR-GO and into Lake Borgne.

If approved, the project would take 10 years to complete, with construction
beginning as early as 2012. It would restore, nourish or protect about 92
square miles of wetlands and land.

Included are three new recreation areas: a boardwalk and picnic shelters at
the northern end of Caffin Avenue that would also be used for wetlands
education programs; a walking and bicycle path and picnic area along the new
Violet diversion, and a pier, walkway and picnic area incorporating the
Hurricane Katrina memorial at Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish.

Each recreation area would be provided with solar lighting, parking and

Construction of the projects would be staged, with those projects providing
most protection from storm surge being built first, according to the plan.

The plan -- which Congress ordered the corps to develop after deauthorizing
the MR-GO as a navigation channel in 2007 -- still must clear a variety of
major hurdles, including whether Louisiana would be required to pay 35
percent of the cost of most of the projects. Coastal Protection and
Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, the state's senior coastal
official, in August notified the corps that the state believes the federal
law authorizing the restoration plan requires that the federal government
pay 100 percent of all costs.

Corps officials threatened to hold off on the restoration plan until the
state agreed to the 35 percent split, Graves said. But then they backed off,
and included a statement in the written plan explaining the disagreement.

Graves said that's an important concession because the state and the federal
government can now offer the restoration plan as a project that could be
financed with fines and mitigation costs that BP and other responsible
parties will pay for the Macondo oil spill.

The corps also contends that its rules require the state to provide all land
used for individual projects, including the more than 150 million cubic
yards of mostly underwater sediment needed for restoration. Again, the state

The plan calls for most sediment to be dredged from the bottom of Lake
Borgne in what corps project manager Greg Miller calls a checkerboard
configuration. No area would be dredged deeper than 10 feet below its
existing surface below the water, and the pattern should alleviate concerns
that the dredging will funnel storm surge or waves towards the shoreline, he

St. Bernard Parish officials also are expected to object to the plan to cut
the Violet diversion through the unpopulated Sinclaire Tract in Meraux,
rather than using the existing Violet Canal two miles to the south. The
diversion channel will be 12 feet deep and 250 feet wide at its bottom, and
would include five culverts for roads, a railroad and utilities.

Miller said the selected path is shorter and less expensive, and would
destroy fewer acres of existing wetlands. The report indicates using the
existing canal would require relocating 121 businesses, residences or
structures, and still would not deliver enough water to adequately freshen
Lake Borgne, the Biloxi Marshes and portions of Mississippi Sound.

The diversion must deliver 1,000 cubic feet per second of water and sediment
during most of the year, increasing to about 7,000 feet per second from
mid-April through May. The existing canal could only handle 2,000 cubic feet
per second.

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation also favors using the existing
Violet Canal, if possible, and has serious concerns about the Lake Borgne
sediment borrow pit plan, said spokesman John Lopez.

Overall, however, the organization favors the plan.

"This restoration project, if realized to any degree, will be the largest
one ever contemplated in this part of the coast and has tremendous promise
to do some good," he said.

The proposed diversion would first move Mississippi River water and sediment
into the Central Wetlands Unit, which is sandwiched between the 40 Arpent
Canal and the levee along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the MR-GO. The
water would then flow out into the MR-GO and into Lake Borgne.

The design is based on historic salinity levels at various locations along
the MR-GO, with the goal to restore water's salt content to levels found
before the channel was built. At Bayou Dupre, that was 2 to 3 parts per
thousand, which rose to 6 to 10 parts per thousand when the channel was
opened, and has dropped to 4 to 7 parts per million with the recent
construction of barriers on the canal at Bayou la Loutre and the Golden
Triangle wetlands.

The diversion plan also has been opposed by oyster growers and shrimp
fishers, who fear damage to existing oyster leases or to the timing of
shrimp fishing. Such disruptions occurred this year because the state opened
as many diversions as possible in an attempt to keep oil from the Macondo
spill out of wetland areas.

Miller said the corps is aware there will be some changes in fisheries, but
pointed out that some oyster leases in Lake Borgne did not exist prior to
the opening of the MR-GO because the area was too fresh for oysters. The
changed water conditions are expected to increase oyster production in other
areas, he added.

The Violet diversion will be financed with a different federal-state split
than the rest of the projects, thanks to a separate line item in a recent
federal bill. Local sponsors would be required to pay 25 percent of its
cost, and the state of Mississippi may be partly on the hook because of the
reduced salinity expected in Mississippi Sound.

Federal officials have attempted to pair the individual projects within the
plan with other already authorized projects.

For instance, plans to restore cypress forest within the Central Wetlands
Unit tie in with a project to allow New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish to
pour treated wastewater into the wetland area. The freshwater and nutrients
promote cypress growth.

Another key goal of the restoration plan is to protect shoreline that
buffers populated areas from hurricane storm surge.

A lengthy stretch of the northwest Lake Borgne coastline from Alligator
Point to the Rigolets in New Orleans would be armored with rock. A mirror
area along easternmost Lake Pontchartrain also would be armored, with
wetlands reconstruction and nourishment planned just north of Venetian

Wetlands nourishment consists of spraying a layer of sediment above
existing, but weak, wetlands. The material gets absorbed into the soils in
which wetland grasses are growing, extending their lifetime.

In designing the projects, the corps used three estimates of the relative
rise of sea level -- the combination of the effects of subsidence and rising
water levels -- expected through 2065. The estimates range from a rise of
1.8 feet to a high of 3.7 feet.

The project will have the most impact if global warming effects are at the
low end of predictions. At the highest level, the value of the projects
drops significantly, as rising water would drown more wetlands.

Corps officials considered thousands of individual restoration projects in
the plan, combining them into a variety of alternatives, and then selecting
from among three "best buy" combinations.

A 45-day public review of the plan and an accompanying environmental impact
statement begins today, and ends Jan. 31, Miller said. The plan also will be
reviewed by an independent peer review team appointed by the corps to look
at all restoration projects in this area.

Public meetings on the plan are scheduled for Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. at C.F.
Rowley Alternative School, 49 Madison Ave., Chalmette; and Jan, 25 at 6 p.m.
at Leo Seal Community Center, 529 Highway 90, Waveland, Miss.

Following the reviews, an updated version of the plan and environmental
statement will undergo a 30-day review, and then the report will be
submitted to the chief of the corps.

Miller said the corps is targeting completion of that process by the end of
September 2011, when it will be submitted to the White House for a final
review before being transmitted to Congress.

Unlike other corps planning documents, which require Congress to vote to
authorize the project and then hold a separate vote, often years later, to
appropriate money for construction, Congress already has authorized the
MR-GO restoration and need only begin appropriating money for its

More information about the plan is available on the web at www.mrgo.gov, or
by contacting Lee Muller, 504.862.1759.

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at mschleifstein at timespicayune.com or

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