La. Plan to Reclaim Land Would Divert the Mississippi

Keith Brunet's house in Isle de Jean Charles, La., is surrounded by  dying trees and a yard that no longer supports a tomato garden because of saltwater intrusion.
Keith Brunet's house in Isle de Jean Charles, La., is surrounded by dying trees and a yard that no longer supports a tomato garden because of saltwater intrusion. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. -- Over two centuries, engineers have restrained the Mississippi River's natural urge to wriggle disastrously out of its banks by building hundreds of miles of levees that work today like a riverine straitjacket.

But it is time, Louisiana officials propose, to let the river loose.

To save the state from washing into the ocean at the astonishing rate of 24 square miles per year, Louisiana officials are developing an epic $50 billion plan that would rebuild the land by rerouting one of the world's biggest rivers. The proposal envisions enormous projects to provide flood protection and reclaim land-building sediment from the river, which now flows uselessly out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The cost of the project, which was initiated by the legislature after hurricanes Katrina and Rita revealed the dangers of the sinking coast, dwarfs those of other megaprojects such as the $14 billion "Big Dig" in Boston and the $8 billion Everglades restoration.

"This will be one of the great engineering challenges of the 21st century -- on the order of the Channel Tunnel or the Three Gorges Dam," said Denise J. Reed, a scientist at the University of New Orleans who has focused on the river. "What is obvious to everyone is that something has to be done."

Specifics are still being worked out, but the plan calls for allowing the Mississippi to flow out of its levees in more than a dozen places in Louisiana, creating, at seven or more sites, new waterways that would carry a volume of water similar to that of the Potomac River. At least three of those waterways, in fact, would run many times as fast as the Potomac.

Those diversions would carry the Mississippi and its land-enhancing sediment into the eroding coastal areas. Other elements in the plan call for mechanically pumping sediment to rebuild marshes and barrier islands. Hundreds of miles of new or reconstructed levees would add flood protection.

The plan now faces two political hurdles. First, the state legislature, which called for the development of a plan last year, must approve it on a straight up-or-down vote. Although the shipping and fishing interests that would be significantly affected by the river diversions are expected to weigh in along the way, they have been quiet so far.

"I haven't heard any opposition yet; people in Louisiana know what's at stake," said state Sen. Reggie P. Dupre Jr., who introduced the bill that called for the planning effort.

The next step, winning federal approval and money, is expected to be more difficult.

In the past, Washington has been unwilling to commit such large sums of money. A $14 billion Louisiana coastal restoration program with some of the same elements as the current proposal was shrunk to about $1 billion in 2004 after the Office of Management and Budget called it too expensive.

But that was before Katrina and Rita fulfilled predictions that the wetland loss was making the state far more vulnerable to storm surge. The hurricanes killed more than 1,400 people and displaced more than 1 million Louisiana residents.

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