Diversion shot down by communityJan 28th, 2011 | By Michelle Provencher | Category: Top Story
Residents who say a freshwater diversion would cut the parish in half almost universally combated the man-made waterway Army Corps of Engineers says will restore St. Bernard Parish’s eroding coastline.
It was standing room only during a public meeting on the diversion, held in the cafeteria of the C.F. Rowley Alternative School on Jan. 20, but that didn’t stop dozens of concerned citizens from speaking out.
“It’s like your right arm’s broken, so you put a cast on the left,” said Kathy Ziegler, one of the many locals opposed to the water diversion. “We don’t need to lose any more land in St. Bernard Parish. We can get pipeline in, and pump what (sediment) we need.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is behind the project, which is an effort to move freshwater out of the Mississippi River into the coastal marshes of Lake Borgne, building up land with river sediment and reducing the salinity of the water.
If successful, the freshwater diversion would balance out intruding salt water, thus preventing further land deterioration and protecting new dredged mud.
The project is expected to restore and protect 58,861 total acres of marsh and wetlands, according to Greg Miller, the chief of the Plan Formulation Branch and Louisiana Coastal Restoration Team with the Corps.
Miller said more than 157 million cubic yards of dredge material, enough to fill 34.3 Superdomes, will be brought in to build up the washed away land.
Perhaps as a consolation, Miller presented an idea to put in a boardwalk and picnic area to the waterway, but gained only chuckles from the crowd in response to the recreational addition.
St. Bernard residents in general have skepticism when it comes to the effectiveness of Corps plans. Exhibit one is the Corps’ admitted failure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO).
The proposed water diversion is to “[restore] damage done by MRGO,” Colonel Ed Fleming, with the Corps in the St. Bernard area, said at the public meeting.
MRGO stretches lengthwise along the east side of St. Bernard, and was built during the 1960s to be a shortcut between the Port of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
Massive flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused the MRGO channel to shallow out, limiting its use for deep-draft vessels. It was de-authorized in 2008 as a federal navigation project.
For years, parish residents blamed the MRGO for land loss and the increased probability of flooding. Finally Congress passed a law in Nov. 2007 directing the Corps to restore Lake Borgne and the MRGO affected areas, said Miller.
Many blame MRGO for wiping out the parish’s brackish marshes and cypress trees.
“You will never see Cyprus trees back in that marsh,” said Robert Campo, a local fisherman who had spoken with Miller about the project before the meeting. “I haven’t seen one project by the Corps worth a damn.”
Others in attendance echoed Campo’s sentiment.
“We are the Corps’ experimental monkey,” exclaimed Raymond Couture, a commercial fisherman since age 13, and now a member of the Coastal Zone Advisory Committee. “Every time [the Corps] wants to try something new, they take it to St. Bernard.”
While the majority of speakers vehemently opposed the project, some people were willing to make a concession if the water diversion were built using the existing Violet Canal.
“Since we live in a delta, we need to let it start functioning like a delta, and that is by pumping freshwater into it,” said one audience member before recommending Violet as the site.
Four potential sites where the water diversion could be built have been selected; one uses the Violet Canal, another is in Poydras and two are in Meraux.
The Corps’ first choice is in Meraux, the Sinclair Tract, since it is the shortest and most direct route between the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne. Also, no homes or businesses would need to be moved.
The second pick is the Pecan Grove in Meraux, which is a slightly farther distance, and one structure would have to be moved.
Expanding the Violet Canal is the third option, and would likely be the costliest choice as 120 homes and businesses are in the way.
“I have interacted with folks interested in this,” said Miller.
The last – and least desired – alternative is in Poydras between the Violet Canal and River Bend. It is the longest distance, would have the largest impact to wetlands, and would require the most dirt to move.
Construction of the water diversion alone is nearly $3 billion, not including operational costs, design costs and land acquisition. The funding is not currently in place.
St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro anticipates the total cost to be closer to $4-5 billion.
Taffaro spoke at length against the Corps-recommended methods.
“This plan fails to meet the comprehensive standards of St. Bernard Parish,” said Taffaro. “The plan sacrifices needed components,” for financial reasons.
Rather, Taffaro suggested using pipelines, following suit with Ziegler’s and many other’s preferred tactic.
Though a system of pipes to pump water would bear a higher price tag, Taffaro said it would not split the parish physically or culturally the way a water diversion would.
“We believe St. Bernard Parish deserves restoration regardless of the cost,” said Taffaro. “Are we spending the dollars as wisely as we can, or as conservatively as we can?”
The physical divide caused worry over transportation as well, especially for fire and emergency medical services.
Yet Fleming said the roadways would be taken care of.
“We will maintain two routes in and out of St. Bernard Parish no matter what we look at,” he said.
This was only the first of three civic meetings scheduled before the end of the public comment period, which was extended by 15 days to end Feb. 14. Miller said all comments will be noted and taken into account before a final draft of the project or a decision has been made.
After, the Corps will take their findings and conclusion to Washington D.C. for authorization.
The second public meeting took place on Jan. 25 in Waveland, Miss. The third will be at the Light City Church in New Orleans on Feb. 3 at 6 pm.