In Louisiana, decision on key wetlands plan involving Mississippi River moving up nearly 2 years

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

NEW ORLEANS — The Army Corps of Engineers announced Monday that it’s moving up the permit decision date nearly two years for a key component of Louisiana’s plan to rebuild its shrinking wetlands.

The Corps had told state officials it could need until October 2022 to assess the environmental impact of a project to create new coastal land by enabling the Mississippi River to push mud and sand into open water. It said Monday that the new deadline is November 2020.

“For a landscape where wetland loss is measured at an hourly rate, shaving nearly two years off the permitting timeline for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is a significant accomplishment,” the conservation coalition Restore the Mississippi Delta said in an emailed statement. “This updated timeline for the project begins to reflect the true urgency of the environmental and economic crisis facing coastal Louisiana.

The project would create structures that could be opened fully when the river is high, sending up to 75,000 cubic feet of sediment, water and nutrients into south Louisiana’s upper Barataria Basin every second – or enough to fill the Superdome every 28 minutes. The rest of the year, it would flow at about 5,000 cubic feet per second.

Commercial fishermen have said they may sue if the project is approved, arguing river water could spoil saltwater or brackish-water fisheries. And the National Marine Fisheries Service has raised questions about whether the project could make Barataria Bay too fresh for the bottlenose dolphins living there.

Supporters said it will be a start toward reversing decades of coastal erosion.

A study released last year said Louisiana’s wetlands loss had slowed slightly _ from a football field’s worth of land every 34 minutes to the same amount every hour and 40 minutes. However, it said the main reasons were probably that there hadn’t been any major hurricanes in Louisiana since 2008, and the most vulnerable wetlands probably already are gone. The state was still losing an estimated 11 square miles a year.

“The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is critical to our future as it addresses the root cause of our coastal crisis by reconnecting the Mississippi River with our basins and restoring the natural process that built our delta,” said Johnny Bradberry, board chairman for the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The governor said in January that President Donald Trump’s administration had agreed to speed up the project’s permitting process.