• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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Ecosystem Restoration: The Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast, Studied to Death

Weaver Bottoms

While I was researching The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I spent a morning with Mike Davis, who researches mussels on the Upper Mississippi for the Minnesota DNR. Mike pointed to a shelf in the corner of his conference room at his office in Lake City, and ranted about the number of studies the Corps of Engineers does that go no where or not far enough. The following morning he took me out into Weaver Bottoms and Half Moon Lake near West Newton, Minnesota and showed me how deposits of sediment trapped behind Upper Mississippi  dams–Lock and Dam #5 in this cas–from its tributaries were smothering mussel beds in Weaver Bottoms.

In 1986 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act which included the Upper Mississippi River Management Act, which acknowledged that the Upper Mississippi is a nationally significant ecosystem as will as a nationally significant navigation system and was an effort to restore its degrading marshes and islands.

Bayou Rigolettes Shoreline Restoration Project

In 1990 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act which included the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protections, and Restoration Act, also know as the Breaux Act and know familiarly twenty years later as CWPPRA. Both acts funded small ecosystem restoration projects.

Lock and Dam 26, Alton, Illinois

Neither act did anything to change the factors that caused the degrading ecosystems. The dams on the Upper Mississippi remained in place and continued to trap sediment behind them, smothering mussle beds.

MRGO at Ycloskey

Navigation channels like MRGO and oil company channels  remained in place, funneling salt water into freshwater marshes, killing them. The levees along the Mississippi would remain in place, depriving marshes in Barataria Bay and Breton Sound precious freshwater and sediment whenever the Mississippi had a flood like the one of 2011 or any other flood.

By 1998 the people working  to restore the Louisiana coastal marshes–the Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana DNR, the EPA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, etc–recognized that small projects were never going to do the job. They signed the Coast 2050 Feasibility Cost Share agreement, by which they would share the $14 billion cost of repairing Louisiana’s coastal marshes. Not until 2003 did the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers come up with the draft study of the project. The Bush administration paled at the cost and sent the engineers back to work to come up with the smaller, more focused, less expensive proposal of projects that could be completed in the near term. The Corps published the $1.9 billion Louisiana Coast Area Ecosystem Restoration Study in 2007 and Congress authorized it in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, but did not fund it.

In the years following the passage of the 1986 Upper Mississippi act, it became clear that small projects were not going to do the job there. In 2000 the Corps of Engineers treated the nation to the lock extension scandal, a proposal to extend the locks on five dams north of the Alton Dam, #26, north of St. Louis. It seems the engineers cooked the books to justify the extension and a Corps economists called them out on it. When the dust settled, Congress authorized the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which included the lock extension, but also authorized a$1.7 billion ecosystem restoration program in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, and ordered the Corps of Engineers to pursue lock extension and ecosystem restoration simultaneously, but funded neither.

That Congress included the Louisiana Coast Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, puny though in was in light of the need, and the  Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, even if it included lock extension, in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act brought hope to those of us who care about the Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana coastal islands and marshes. The economy was in recession when President signed the act into law. The economy crashed the following September. Congress still has not funded either program.

That Congress has not funded the lock extension gives Upper River environmentalists hope that they will never be funded, but nor will ecosystem restoration.

BP agreed to a $20 billion fund to compensate those people whose businesses along the Gulf Coast were harmed by last summer’s massive oil spill. Environmentalists and others hoped that some of that money could go into ecosystem restoration.

Last week the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers signed yet another agreement with the State of Louisiana to study the possibility of redesigning the Mississippi to divert water and sediment to Barataria Bay to the east and Breton Sound to the west.

We know what needs to be done on both the Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast. We have studied the ecosystem deterioration to death and the marshes continue to die. What we end up with is a pile of unfunded studies.

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