Big Muddy water vs. oysters
The familiar and distressing time series of maps of the disintegrating coast of Louisiana don’t show the salt water from the gulf that is inexorably creeping north as formerly solid freshwater marshes and coastal forests have broken up and turned into shallow open water that is no longer “sweet.” Ocean water is filling the void previously occupied by marshy landscape.
Since Bayou Lafourche was dammed off from the river in 1904, rainwater has become the only significant source of freshwater to the Barataria and Terrebonne basins.
As a result, these vast basins have become increasingly salty and extensive freshwater marshes have been replaced with shallow brackish open water, i.e., prime habitat for oysters. Not surprisingly, during the past century oyster growers have followed the salinity trend and taken leases progressively further north.
The prospective Myrtle Grove river diversion project represents the best current hope for sustainable wetland recovery in the Barataria Basin* by restoring periodic nourishment of freshwater, sediments and nutrients that prevailed before river water was cut off from the basin. This project, which is strongly supported by science, poses an understandable threat to oyster growers who have adapted to the past century of change and now face a return to more natural conditions.
This post includes two examples of political pushback from oyster growers against coastal restoration that should be anticipated and somehow resolved. Unfortunately it is much more difficult to achieve consensus than to prevent it.
On Friday May 8 the governor’s coastal advisory commission met in Baton Rouge to discuss conflicts between commercial oyster interests and restoration projects, specifically large river diversions such as the one being proposed for Myrtle Grove. The meeting was chaired by Jim Tripp, executive counsel for Enviromental Defense and a supporter of the Myrtle Grove concept.
This proposed diversion structure, when operated at full bore, will be five times larger in capacity than the Davis Pond and Caernarvon projects combined, up to 100,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), or roughly ten times the volume of the Potomac River as it flows past Washington DC. That’s a whole lot of water but less than half of what passed through the Bonnet Carre’ structure during April 2007.
Myrtle Grove and similar large diversion projects would not operate continuously but only during pulses for several weeks during spring as the river approaches a peak stage and a maximum load of land building suspended sediments. Like pulsing water from the Glen Canyon Dam into the Grand Canyon, such an operation during opportune years would literally flush the Barataria Basin, creating a rejuvenating shock to the ecosystem – just like mother nature did for seven thousand years.
The meeting progressed as follows:
Earl Melancon, a biology professor at Nicholls’ State Univ. (a graduate student of mine before I left LSU in 1984), presented an overview of oyster ecology during which he urged cooperation and recognition of mutual interests between commercial oyster growers and restoration officials. While not specifically signing on to Myrtle Grove, Dr. Melancon strongly endorsed the concept of pulsed diversions.
Heather Finley from the marine fisheries section of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (WL&F) described the state’s uniquely successful private oyster leasing program that was instituted in 1902 during the administration of Gov. Mike Foster’s namesake grandfather. She reported that there are almost 8,000 active private oyster leases today, totalling about 385,500 acres, many in the potential area of influence of Myrtle Grove.
Mike Voisin, arguably the best known oyster grower in Louisiana, presented an overview of the state of the oyster industry in Louisiana. He pointed out that oyster growers were the first proponents of river diversions during the sixties. Ironically, opportunistic lawsuits brought in 1994 by a few oyster leaseholders against the state over the operation of the Caernarvon diversion project did not enhance the image of the industry. A recent economic assessment by Walter Keithley at the LSU AgCenter puts the annual Louisiana oyster sales value at about $30 million/year but Voisin said that the total positive impact of the industry is more like $300 million/year.
Next was a presentation on the history of oyster litigation by Andy Wilson, a private attorney with extensive experience in maritime and shellfish leasing issues. Andy has represented the state since 1994 when I recommended him to Al Donovan, then executive counsel for Gov. Edwards, as best prepared to defend Louisiana against the previously mentioned lawsuit that could drain restoration funding.
Wilson summarized for the commission his experience in this saga that he calls the 1994-2009 Louisiana oyster wars, the “Avenal” and “Alonzo” cases that ended positively when the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned lower court decisions that would have cost the state billions of dollars. My recommendation for Andy’s involvement was based on his support for using real science as the state’s defense attorney (see image below). I hope to persuade him to write a guest post on this fascinating story in the near future.
Kirk Rhinehart, administrator of the new office of coastal protection and restoration (OCPR), reported on the current system under which the oyster industry, the state oyster leasing program and the OCPR coexist and deal with conflicts over projects. Rhinehart’s presentation was quite upbeat; he reported that a system is now codified in law (Act 208 passed in 2008) that allows the peaceful resolution of conflicts between restoration projects and oyster leaseholders at minimal cost and without lawsuits.
Back to my theme of river water vs. oysters:
At the close of the meeting John Tesvich, an oyster grower from lower Plaquemine Parish who I have known and respected for many years, made a strong statement against the Myrtle Grove project. He predicted that diverting ten times more polluted river water into the Barataria Basin then Davis Pond would turn a pristine and productive estuarine system into a muddy freshwater system. He also warned the commission that, no matter what is promised in terms of short term surge operation, the “valves” will be operated continuously at full bore. He closed his remarks by promising to mount a campaign against the project.
I strongly disagree with Mr. Tesvich on a number of technical points but his concern about Myrtle Grove is understandable in that his livelihood would be affected by the project.
The following describes a far less respectful political threat to Myrtle Grove (and presumably any restoration concept) from another Plaquemine Parish oyster stakeholder.
A trip down memory lane. In my recent post about the rapidly escalating cost of restoring south Louisiana I reminisced about the early days of the governor’s office of coastal activities (GOCA). In 1992, after being appointed to head the office by former governor Edwin Edwards I raced to staff up with qualified people before being inundated with campaign supporters lacking in actual technical credentials that didn’t require “air quotes.” To his credit, my efforts in this regard were supported by Ben Jeffers, Edwin’s then chief of staff.
After the dust had settled I fortunately wound up with three responsible, dependable and congenial staffers: Karen Gautreaux,** an environmental policy expert from Buddy Roemer’s office; Jim Stone, a coastal professor colleague from LSU who, like me, had been peremptorally dismissed from the Old War Skule;*** and Karl DeRouen, a politically savvy Eunice, Louisiana native who happened to be married to one of EWE’s close friends but who went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science from Texas A&M and now teaches political science at the Univ. of Alabama.
All this is by way of saying that Karl just called my attention to a political rant by a resident of Plaquemine Parish named Ted Duplessis. I recommend reading this diatribe with a strong disclaimer that Duplessis does not represent my views. If you’re not personally offended by something here you’re either very tolerant or not paying attention. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco is just about the only official or ethnic group not trashed in this equal opportunity critique.
The good news is that political support for restoring our coast is almost universal among south Louisianans. The bad news is that this support may be matched by strong opposition to doing virtually anything of consequence. Mr. Duplessis’ views personify an “everyman for himself” attitude that could unfortunately sink the best laid plans to save our coastal “lifeboat.”
*Pipeline conveyance of dredged sediments can recreate marshes but it can’t sustain them.
**Now married to the aforementioned Andrew Wilson, esq.
*** And now Ivor van Heerden!