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.
"If the hurricanes didn't make the point we've been trying to make for all these years, nothing will," said Sidney Coffee, the chairman of the state authority created by the legislature to develop a plan. "We can't afford to be scaled back again."
"We didn't want to take risks before," said Scott Angelle, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources. "But now we've been hit in the head with a two-by-six. We're ready."The Loss of Land
For decades, the steady loss of Louisiana's coastal wetlands was considered a slow-motion disaster, but not an emergency.
Most of southeastern Louisiana was built over the past 6,000 years by the sediment of the Mississippi River, which naturally changed course and flooded over the millennia. The river deposits created everything from the land that New Orleans sits on down to the state's southernmost -- and marshiest -- extremes.
Since the settlement of New Orleans, however, the levees built to prevent catastrophic flooding have slowly but inexorably contributed to a different type of catastrophe: the loss of land.
The hemmed-in river could no longer occasionally change course and overflow to spread its sediment and build up the land. The soft soil of southern Louisiana continued to settle and sink. At the same time, the wetland vegetation that had helped hold the existing land together was crisscrossed with navigation canals, paths for oil rigs and gas pipelines.
Since the 1930s, an estimated 1,900 square miles of land have been lost, an area about the size of Delaware.
Entire bayou Cajun communities -- Leeville, Port Fourchon, Isle de Jean Charles -- have shrunk over the decades to little more than narrow strips. Fields and marshes that once supported hunting and fishing have surrendered to the ocean. After each storm, more families relocate to higher ground.
One recent morning, Keith Brunet, 31, a tugboat deckhand, and his girlfriend were doing chores in the front yard of the Isle de Jean Charles house his grandfather once lived in.
The yard, he points out, no longer supports the tomato garden that used to grow there; the soil has become too salty.
In his lawn, there are two types of grass: one small patch of ordinary lawn grass and the rest a spiky marsh variety. A 25-foot oak, planted by Brunet's father when Brunet was a child, died a few years ago, leaving only a leafless ghostly white trunk.
His father, "tired of fighting the water," recently moved north, leaving the house to Brunet. Across the street is an abandoned house where his aunt used to live.
Brunet looked around and grimaced.
"My kids will never see this place," he said. "It's going to be nothing but water."
Rickey Cheramie, 54, of Port Fourchon remembers hunting and fishing on 5,000 acres of wetlands that are now underwater. He has put his property up for sale because he wants to move north to live within existing levees.
"It's just too saddening to be here," he said. "I just keep looking for something that isn't there anymore."Levees and Diversions
Rita and Katrina transformed a sad situation into an urgent one. Yet exactly what to do remains a matter of debate.
The most prominent argument over the plan concerns the extent and location of the new levees, which could extend protection for much of southern Louisiana.
Some communities, like Brunet's, are facing the prospect of being left out.
"It doesn't seem fair," he said. "Why not just build them down here?"
On the other side are environmentalists and scientists who say the vast earthen walls will damage any wetlands they cross. In the long run, the scientists argue, building the levees could be self-defeating.
"Healthy tidal wetlands are not in general compatible with levee construction, and without healthy wetlands the land loss will continue," said a letter from Environmental Defense, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.
The master plan's authors say they are seeking the right balance.
"We are not embarrassed to say we want to provide hurricane protection to as many communities as we can," said Jon Porthouse of the state's Department of Natural Resources. "But there is a lot of planning to be done before we say, 'The levees will go here.' "
While the levees have aroused the noisiest debate so far, the vast river diversions, which could place river-dependent industries at risk, may pose larger challenges.
For starters, some scientists warn that the river diversions will not work in time to rescue threatened communities. "It could be hundreds or thousands of years before we see a spot of land," said Kerry St. Pé, director for Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. But whether it's hundreds or thousands of years, it will be too long, he said: "Right now we are at absolute collapse."
By removing all or most of the flow from the Mississippi River's main channel, the more than 6,000 ships that travel through New Orleans to the ocean each year -- carrying chemicals, coal and a significant portion of the nation's grain exports -- may have to find an alternate route nearby, possibly through a system of locks and canals. That would increase travel time and add to costs. The plan also calls for closing shipping to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a navigation channel that some scientists said acted as a "superhighway" for storm surge caused by Katrina.
The diversions would also dilute salt water in estuaries, altering the region's shrimp and oyster harvest, one of the largest in the nation.
Some in the oyster industry waged a protracted legal battle over a smaller river diversion, but attitudes may have shifted. Oysterman Ralph "Buddy" Pausina, a member of the state's oyster task force, said they cannot stop the plan, adding: "The coast has to be protected."
In response to the myriad concerns, supporters say the plan remains largely conceptual. They focus instead on its urgency.
"Look, if we solve this problem, yes, it's going to hurt some people," said Windell Curole, a native of the affected area and a member of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. "But if we don't solve it, it's going to hurt all the people."
Curole and others note that although the problem of the ocean overtaking the coast is for now specific to Louisiana, some global-warming scenarios lead scientists to say it is just a portent of what could happen to other coastal areas in the United States.
"We're not the only ones who will have to deal with this if the seas keep rising," Coffee said. "Just the first."