Chris Macaluso

January 17, 2020

The River that Built South Louisiana

When it comes to the Mississippi River, coastal residents struggle to find a balance between creation and destruction

Over the last 10,000-plus years, as the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi shifted back and forth across the central Gulf of Mexico coast, sediment dropped out and formed a mix of rich, watery, alluvial lands crossed and dotted with bayous, lakes, swamps that eventually give way to marshes and barrier islands.

Since explorers planted a French flag in those soils in 1682, there has been a constant struggle to tame the river and balance the needs of flood control and navigation with the ecological needs of those wetlands and swamps and the fish, wildlife and people who live there.

The struggle intensified in late 2018 through the spring of 2019 as more rain fell in the Mississippi River Valley than at any other time in recorded history.

Levees built in the mid-19th to the mid-20th century protect communities during the average spring flood. But when extraordinary flood levels threaten New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers must direct as much as 20 percent of the river’s more than 1 million cubic feet per second flow rate through the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway and into Lake Pontchartrain, north of the city.

The levees, while saving communities and industries, also cut off the vital, wetland-sustaining annual water and sediment supplies. The consequence has been the loss of nearly 2,000 square miles of fish and wildlife-producing marshes and swamps in the last century, making communities more vulnerable to storm surges from the Gulf and threatening Louisiana’s unrivaled fish, waterfowl and wildlife production.

The State of Louisiana has responded to that land and habitat loss with a coastal restoration and protection master plan consisting of levees, floodgates, barrier island and marsh restoration as well as  gates in the river’s levees, called “diversions” that will send sediment-laden flood waters back into the marshes.

This map shows the sites of two diversions proposed in the master plan.

The recent, unprecedented freshwater flush across the northern Gulf from the Mississippi River, plus flood-stages on the Pearl River and the Mobile River Delta, sent many commercial and recreational fishermen scrambling to find speckled trout, shrimp, crabs and oysters displaced or, in some cases, killed by the flooding. Local elected officials have asked the federal government for fishery disaster assistance to help address the business losses.

While catches of speckled trout, white shrimp and crabs rebounded in the Pontchartrain Basin after the spillway was closed in July 2019, and redfish and bass catches stayed strong throughout the flood, the spillway opening and other flooding has some in Louisiana and neighboring Mississippi questioning if the planned diversions to save and sustain coastal marshes will have similar impacts.

“The flooding we saw was unprecedented and the Corps of Engineers had no choice but to open the Bonnet Carre’ when the waters threatened New Orleans,” said Brian Lezina, the Planning and Research Division Chief for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “But, the way that spillway works, by moving 200,000-300,000 cubic feet per second into the open and relatively deep waters of Lake Pontchartrain and then into Mississippi Sound and the Gulf strictly for flood prevention is not how a diversion built specifically to benefit marsh and build habitat is going to function.”

 

HARD CHOICES

The Louisiana Coastal Master Plan calls for two sediment diversions south of New Orleans, one west of the river called the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion and one east, the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion. Both are being designed with a maximum flow rate of 75,000 cubic feet per second, far less than the Bonnet Carre’. They are also designed to operate when sediment loads are at their highest in the river, generally from late winter through late spring, to maximize land-building, but at lower flow rates when suspended sediment wanes. Operation plans would allow saltier conditions to return from early summer through late fall each year, the way the river would generally behave.

Lezina and his colleagues have conducted more than 100 public meetings in the last four years with various stakeholders to try and address concerns about the projects and discuss the possible positive and potentially negative affects to fisheries. He said data suggest natural ridges and the small volume of water from the Mid-Breton Diversion compared to the volume of salty waters in the Gulf means different impacts than a Bonnet Carre’ opening.

“Capturing that suspended sediment in the river’s current is essential to sustaining and building wetlands and also preserving the crucial habitat that blue crabs, shrimp, speckled trout, redfish, waterfowl and many other estuarine animals need,” Lezina said. “The majority of popular commercial and recreational estuarine species have evolved with the seasonal inputs of sediment, freshwater, and nutrients.  The habitats they rely on for survival, such as vegetated mudflats and marshes rely on that cycle as well. We can control the flow rates of the diversions to mimic the estuary in the same way the river would have done without the levees cutting the system off.”

The Bonnet Carre Spillway opening has increased the diversity of the fish in the areas east of New Orleans. This bass, flounder, speckled trout and redfish were all caught in an area inundated by freshwater from the spillway just a couple months after the spillway closed

 

Many commercial and some recreational fishermen in the areas that will be most affected by the diversions have opposed construction outright despite project openings that are a decade or more away and the crippling coastal land loss of the last century.

Captain Charlie Thomason operates a fishing lodge and guide service east of New Orleans in the town of Hopedale. Areas he fishes will be in the outflow area of the Mid-Breton Diversion. He said he doesn’t completely oppose using the river to rebuild marshes but questions the need for such high flow rates and if his business can survive the seasonal changes to the fishery.

“You look at all the marsh we’ve lost just in the last 20-30 years and there’s no question that something has to be done to address it, but I think the diversions in the Master Plan are just too large,” Thomason said. “The velocities may hurt our marsh and it will certainly change our fisheries half the year. Our clients want to come here to catch redfish and speckled trout year-round and what we’ll be faced with is a fishery where we’ll have trout to catch in the late summer and fall but not the other six or seven months. Our clients will take their business to other places and not come back.”

Thomason said he thinks the Master Plan does a good job of prescribing marsh creation and barrier island projects built with dredges, but wants any diversions to be closer to the levees, smaller and designed to extend out Gulf-ward as sediment is deposited.

Captain Ryan Lambert runs a guide service and lodge 30 miles south of Hopedale in Buras where he focuses on redfish and speckled trout throughout the year and waterfowl hunting in the late fall and winter. He has been one of the state’s most outspoken proponents of sediment diversions despite the difficult conditions caused at times by the river. East of Buras is one of a handful of places in Louisiana where natural bayous and crevasses connected to the river are depositing sediment and building land each year.

“We have to have that sediment and that water coming out of the river to build our land and habitat,” Lambert said. “With all of the cuts and passes east of the river, we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of water when the river is high, but we still fish there because that’s where the habitat is good and where we can catch fish.”

He contrasts that with the west side of the river where there is no connection to the Mississippi River and the marsh has subsided and been battered and eroded by hurricanes.

“I used to spend 90 percent of my time fishing the marsh west of Buras, but now it’s nothing but open water for six miles between me and the Gulf,” Lambert said. “Without that marsh, the mudflats and the grass, our juvenile shrimp, fish and crabs can’t survive. We must have that water and sediment feeding our habitat. Without it, we have no fish. We have no future.”

 

This article previously appeared in the Jan/Fed 2020 issue of TIDE Magazine.

One Response to “The River that Built South Louisiana”

  1. David Frazier

    Living here on the coast and being a third generation commercial fisherman I am for using every tool in the tool box to at least try to do something about the erosion. I’m 60 years old and just about all of the marsh here has turnedinto open water in my lifetime. If nothing is done it will all be gone before long.

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The River that Built South Louisiana

When it comes to the Mississippi River, coastal residents struggle to find a balance between creation and destruction

Over the last 10,000-plus years, as the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi shifted back and forth across the central Gulf of Mexico coast, sediment dropped out and formed a mix of rich, watery, alluvial lands crossed and dotted with bayous, lakes, swamps that eventually give way to marshes and barrier islands.

Since explorers planted a French flag in those soils in 1682, there has been a constant struggle to tame the river and balance the needs of flood control and navigation with the ecological needs of those wetlands and swamps and the fish, wildlife and people who live there.

The struggle intensified in late 2018 through the spring of 2019 as more rain fell in the Mississippi River Valley than at any other time in recorded history.

Levees built in the mid-19th to the mid-20th century protect communities during the average spring flood. But when extraordinary flood levels threaten New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers must direct as much as 20 percent of the river’s more than 1 million cubic feet per second flow rate through the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway and into Lake Pontchartrain, north of the city.

The levees, while saving communities and industries, also cut off the vital, wetland-sustaining annual water and sediment supplies. The consequence has been the loss of nearly 2,000 square miles of fish and wildlife-producing marshes and swamps in the last century, making communities more vulnerable to storm surges from the Gulf and threatening Louisiana’s unrivaled fish, waterfowl and wildlife production.

The State of Louisiana has responded to that land and habitat loss with a coastal restoration and protection master plan consisting of levees, floodgates, barrier island and marsh restoration as well as  gates in the river’s levees, called “diversions” that will send sediment-laden flood waters back into the marshes.

This map shows the sites of two diversions proposed in the master plan.

The recent, unprecedented freshwater flush across the northern Gulf from the Mississippi River, plus flood-stages on the Pearl River and the Mobile River Delta, sent many commercial and recreational fishermen scrambling to find speckled trout, shrimp, crabs and oysters displaced or, in some cases, killed by the flooding. Local elected officials have asked the federal government for fishery disaster assistance to help address the business losses.

While catches of speckled trout, white shrimp and crabs rebounded in the Pontchartrain Basin after the spillway was closed in July 2019, and redfish and bass catches stayed strong throughout the flood, the spillway opening and other flooding has some in Louisiana and neighboring Mississippi questioning if the planned diversions to save and sustain coastal marshes will have similar impacts.

“The flooding we saw was unprecedented and the Corps of Engineers had no choice but to open the Bonnet Carre’ when the waters threatened New Orleans,” said Brian Lezina, the Planning and Research Division Chief for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “But, the way that spillway works, by moving 200,000-300,000 cubic feet per second into the open and relatively deep waters of Lake Pontchartrain and then into Mississippi Sound and the Gulf strictly for flood prevention is not how a diversion built specifically to benefit marsh and build habitat is going to function.”

 

HARD CHOICES

The Louisiana Coastal Master Plan calls for two sediment diversions south of New Orleans, one west of the river called the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion and one east, the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion. Both are being designed with a maximum flow rate of 75,000 cubic feet per second, far less than the Bonnet Carre’. They are also designed to operate when sediment loads are at their highest in the river, generally from late winter through late spring, to maximize land-building, but at lower flow rates when suspended sediment wanes. Operation plans would allow saltier conditions to return from early summer through late fall each year, the way the river would generally behave.

Lezina and his colleagues have conducted more than 100 public meetings in the last four years with various stakeholders to try and address concerns about the projects and discuss the possible positive and potentially negative affects to fisheries. He said data suggest natural ridges and the small volume of water from the Mid-Breton Diversion compared to the volume of salty waters in the Gulf means different impacts than a Bonnet Carre’ opening.

“Capturing that suspended sediment in the river’s current is essential to sustaining and building wetlands and also preserving the crucial habitat that blue crabs, shrimp, speckled trout, redfish, waterfowl and many other estuarine animals need,” Lezina said. “The majority of popular commercial and recreational estuarine species have evolved with the seasonal inputs of sediment, freshwater, and nutrients.  The habitats they rely on for survival, such as vegetated mudflats and marshes rely on that cycle as well. We can control the flow rates of the diversions to mimic the estuary in the same way the river would have done without the levees cutting the system off.”

The Bonnet Carre Spillway opening has increased the diversity of the fish in the areas east of New Orleans. This bass, flounder, speckled trout and redfish were all caught in an area inundated by freshwater from the spillway just a couple months after the spillway closed

 

Many commercial and some recreational fishermen in the areas that will be most affected by the diversions have opposed construction outright despite project openings that are a decade or more away and the crippling coastal land loss of the last century.

Captain Charlie Thomason operates a fishing lodge and guide service east of New Orleans in the town of Hopedale. Areas he fishes will be in the outflow area of the Mid-Breton Diversion. He said he doesn’t completely oppose using the river to rebuild marshes but questions the need for such high flow rates and if his business can survive the seasonal changes to the fishery.

“You look at all the marsh we’ve lost just in the last 20-30 years and there’s no question that something has to be done to address it, but I think the diversions in the Master Plan are just too large,” Thomason said. “The velocities may hurt our marsh and it will certainly change our fisheries half the year. Our clients want to come here to catch redfish and speckled trout year-round and what we’ll be faced with is a fishery where we’ll have trout to catch in the late summer and fall but not the other six or seven months. Our clients will take their business to other places and not come back.”

Thomason said he thinks the Master Plan does a good job of prescribing marsh creation and barrier island projects built with dredges, but wants any diversions to be closer to the levees, smaller and designed to extend out Gulf-ward as sediment is deposited.

Captain Ryan Lambert runs a guide service and lodge 30 miles south of Hopedale in Buras where he focuses on redfish and speckled trout throughout the year and waterfowl hunting in the late fall and winter. He has been one of the state’s most outspoken proponents of sediment diversions despite the difficult conditions caused at times by the river. East of Buras is one of a handful of places in Louisiana where natural bayous and crevasses connected to the river are depositing sediment and building land each year.

“We have to have that sediment and that water coming out of the river to build our land and habitat,” Lambert said. “With all of the cuts and passes east of the river, we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of water when the river is high, but we still fish there because that’s where the habitat is good and where we can catch fish.”

He contrasts that with the west side of the river where there is no connection to the Mississippi River and the marsh has subsided and been battered and eroded by hurricanes.

“I used to spend 90 percent of my time fishing the marsh west of Buras, but now it’s nothing but open water for six miles between me and the Gulf,” Lambert said. “Without that marsh, the mudflats and the grass, our juvenile shrimp, fish and crabs can’t survive. We must have that water and sediment feeding our habitat. Without it, we have no fish. We have no future.”

 

This article previously appeared in the Jan/Fed 2020 issue of TIDE Magazine.

Randall Williams

January 3, 2020

12 Conservation Wins from 2019

As the New Year gets underway, here’s a look back at last year’s biggest moments for fish and wildlife

Last year sportsmen and women spoke out meaningfully on the issues that matter most, and thanks to your actions and the actions of our 60 partners we secured some key victories for conservation funding, fish and wildlife habitat, and sporting access.

We’ve been counting down 12 Days of Conservation Wins from 2019 on our social media accounts. In case you missed it, catch up below (and then follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter).

  • With your support in 2019, the TRCP pushed Congress to pass bipartisan public lands legislation. This landmark accomplishment permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation’s most powerful tool for increasing access to public lands and conserving fish and wildlife habitat; reaffirmed that public lands are open for hunting and fishing unless specifically closed through a transparent public process; and preserved millions of acres of public lands and hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers.
  • After you spoke up for more public lands access, the TRCP released a second groundbreaking report in partnership with OnX Hunt, which revealed that 6.35 million state-owned public lands are entirely landlocked, limiting sportsmen’s access.
  • After 2,300+ of you signed action alerts calling for action on chronic wasting disease, the TRCP and our partners convinced House lawmakers to include $15 million in funding to address and research chronic wasting disease in their appropriations bills.
  • Migration crossings and habitat connectivity are vital for healthy game and fish populations. With your support, the TRCP and 44 partner organizations led an effort to secure $250 million annually for migration crossings and aquatic connectivity projects in the Senate 2020 Highway Bill.

 

Photo: Laura Mahoney/USFWS Pacific Southwest

 

 

Photo: USFWS Midwest

 

 

Top photo: USFWS Mountain Prairie

Guest Blogger Jon Andrew

January 2, 2020

Everglades Restoration Efforts Offer New Hope for Southwest Florida

An ambitious infrastructure project promises relief for the Caloosahatchee River system and new opportunities for sportsmen and women

The Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida has long been troubled by erratic changes in water quality and quantity. A wet summer season brings too much water, while drier times of the year bring too little, and changes in salinity for extended periods of time put the system under great stress. Adding to these problems are excessive loads of nutrients entering the water due to changes in land-use and an ever-increasing human population.

In recent years, these problems have resulted in a large-scale loss of sea grass beds, which in turn affected the local fishery and anglers’ opportunities to chase snook, redfish, and trout.

But thanks to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and collaborative efforts by resource managers, conservationists, and local and state officials, a solution is on the way that will restore habitat, improve water quality, and boost opportunities for sportsmen and women.

Photo: dconvertini via Flickr
An Altered Waterway

Originally the Caloosahatchee drained a basin west of Lake Okeechobee and was fed by rainfall and springs in the region. In the 1880s, however, a canal connecting the river to Lake Okeechobee resulted in a permanent change in the hydrology of the system.

Continued population growth and changes in land use continued over time until the system reached a breaking point. Frequent algae blooms and a recent outbreak of blue-green algae now represent a threat to domestic animals as well as fish and wildlife, and may also pose a health risk to people.

In addition to water quality concerns, sustained periods of very high or very low flows of freshwater result in stress on sea grasses and other marine life. In recent years this produced a large-scale loss of sea grass beds. With the loss of sea grass the local fishery suffers, and opportunities for anglers to enjoy snook, redfish, and trout have diminished.

Photo: South Florida Water Management District
Working Towards a Fix

A solution to these problems started to take shape in 2015, when construction began on the C-43 West Basin Reservoir. When completed, this reservoir, located adjacent to the Caloosahatchee, will span nearly 11,000 acres and provide the capacity to store 170,000 acre-feet of water.

Stormwater runoff and releases from Lake Okeechobee would be stored in the reservoir and released to replicate historic flows in the system. An added benefit will be the reduction in sediment and nutrient loads entering the river and estuary. In addition, a water quality component is being developed while construction is underway. Restored sea grass and filter feeding organisms will also help to improve water quality in the river and estuary.

Major partners in the project include the South Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Construction funding is being provided by the state with operations and maintenance shared jointly by the federal and state governments.

The project has received support at the highest levels, including the Florida state legislature, the Florida congressional delegation, and Governor Ron DeSantis, who visited the site on October 25, 2019, for the initiation of work on the 15 miles of perimeter canals and 19 miles of embankments needed to complete the project. Overall construction is expected to be completed in 2022.

 

Photo: South Florida Water Management District
A Promising Future

The finished reservoir will provide resource managers with the ability to regulate water quantity and quality in the Caloosahatchee River, San Carlos Bay, and the greater Caloosahatchee estuary. This capability will in turn mitigate potentially harmful releases of water from Lake Okeechobee and allow the lake’s water levels to be managed more flexibly. These measures will help to improve sea grass beds, a valuable marine fishery, and provide more recreational opportunity to fish for trout, redfish, and snook.

While the project’s fundamental purpose is to benefit the river and estuary, the reservoir and perimeter canals will provide new angling opportunities since funding has been included for a recreational component to the project. Anglers will be able to use boat ramps and fish the perimeter canals once the reservoir is operational and fish populations have become established.

All told, this project will be a big win for sportsmen and women and a great example of how conservation partnerships can produce healthy habitat and clean water, as well as the hunting and fishing opportunities that go with them.

 

Jon Andrew is the Florida outreach coordinator for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He is recently retired from a 35-year career as a biologist and refuge manager with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, where he eventually became responsible for management of all refuge lands in the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean. In his spare time, he enjoys saltwater flyfishing and poling his skiff in the shallow waters along the southwest Florida coast in search of snook.

Top photo: South Florida Water Management District

Randall Williams

December 19, 2019

Bill to Recruit, Retain, Reactivate Hunters Heads to Trump’s Desk

Bipartisan legislation to keep the government open and invest in conservation to become law 

Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have passed a bill to safeguard hunting traditions, while paving the way for new investments in conservation.  

Bipartisan legislation to fund the government through September 2020 cleared both chambers and included language allowing excise taxes on firearms and ammunition to be used to address declining hunting participation.  The Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act was one of several key wins in the year-end appropriations bill.

“In times of political rancor, it’s clear that conservation and outdoor recreation unite people from all walks of life,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. This legislation invests in the future of hunting and fishing, public land access, habitat restoration, and ensuring healthy waterwaysWe are thrilled that it is making its way to the President’s desk and we look forward to seeing it become law.”

The bill also included $495 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, $200 million for Everglades restoration to reduce harmful algal blooms, $55 million for WaterSMART grants to strengthen fisheries and water efficiency, and $175 million for NRCS Watershed and Flood Prevention Operationsand $73 million for the Chesapeake Bay. 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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