A clash over Louisiana’s biggest coastal restoration project has flared again in the early days of Gov. Jeff Landry’s administration, with opponents of the nearly $3 billion river diversion that has finally broken ground after years of planning mounting a renewed attack.

Arguments over the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion have been hashed out repeatedly, and in August, officials celebrated the unprecedented land-building project’s ceremonial start. But opponents, including commercial fishers and Plaquemines Parish officials, were provided a platform this week to argue their case to state authorities anew.

They were also given reason to believe their message might be heard. Landry’s new chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Gordon Dove, said a comprehensive report on all details of the project to date, from budgeting to ongoing legal challenges, is being prepared and will be submitted to the governor. He characterized it as a fact-finding mission and said it was too early to say where the report might lead.

Mid-Barataria diversion map

Map of the?Mid-Barataria sediment diversion project.

It is unclear whether significant changes can be made to the project at this stage. The work is being paid for with settlement money linked to the 2010 BP oil spill, and the funding has gone through a series of approvals from the various boards charged with distributing it. The Army Corps of Engineers has also issued permits after conducting an extensive assessment of the project.

But the deep divide between commercial fishers who will see their livelihoods affected and the coastal scientists seeking ways to counteract the devastating land loss afflicting Louisiana was on full display at a packed meeting of the CPRA’s board on Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, the former Plaquemines Parish president who has spoken frequently of his opposition to the diversion, addressed the board in dramatic terms. He alleged those who spoke out had received threats to have funding pulled or to be left out of contracts, using the word “criminal” a couple times to refer to that and other allegations.

He later apologized for his language after a board member said he had implied those who worked on the project were criminals.

“Everybody that represents a parish at this meeting should be outraged,” said Nungesser. “That money could be spread along the coast and protect your people in our lifetime.”

A succession of other opponents also spoke, and the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board presented a video railing against the project.

State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, a former head of the CPRA, said he felt compelled to speak to combat what he characterized as falsehoods from Nungesser, a fellow Republican, including the allegations about threats. He also said Nungesser’s comments that the project would “destroy” the seafood industry were wrong.

He pointed to the “subsidence, land loss, sea level rise and all the other impacts” to the coast.

“It's amazing that we're now fishing in places that we were catching crawfish and catfish,” said Zeringue, referring to the land loss that has allowed salt water to advance farther inland. “Why? Because of the loss of our coast.”

Zeringue added that the CPRA “utilizes science and technology to make their decisions, and I will put that up against any of your scientific information.”

Nungesser publicly flirted with a run for governor and initially opposed Landry’s candidacy in last year’s election, but he changed tack after the two met in February 2023. The meeting included discussion of the diversion.

NO.midbargoundbreaking.081123_181.JPG

Public officials, staff with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority(CPRA), along with coastal rebuilding advocates from across south Louisiana, gather at the area where the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion will be built. A groundbreaking ceremony was held south of Belle Chasse, Louisiana on Thursday, August 10, 2023. The long-needed diversion will one day deliver sediment and nutrients from the Mississippi River into the disappearing south Louisiana coast just south of New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com)

Reconnecting the river

It was an eventful meeting for Dove, his first as chair of the authority that oversees the state’s coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects. He said the report being compiled would be submitted to legal counsel, Landry and other departments involved.

“We’re putting together a comprehensive total report of all aspects,” Dove, a former Terrebonne Parish president and state representative, told the meeting.

Asked afterward if that meant the whole project could be called off, Dove noted the court challenges against it, but added: “From our perspective, we don’t have any position right now.” He said the goal was to compile a full view of where it stands.

The project aims to rebuild land by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the eroding wetlands in the Barataria Basin. It would do so through construction of a channel that would funnel up to 75,000 cubic feet per second of river water and sediment into the basin.

The diversion would be built around the community of Ironton, on the river’s west bank in Plaquemines Parish. The amount of water being funneled into the basin would fluctuate according to the river’s flow.

Tidal flooding in Happy Jack

Water from one of the canals in Happy Jack seeps under an elevated house on April 24, 2021.?This "sunny day" flooding could happen more frequently with the operation of the planned Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, should it gain the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' approval next year, and the state wants to mitigate the effects. (Photo by Halle Parker, Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate)

It is projected to build around 21 square miles of land over 50 years by mimicking the way south Louisiana emerged in the first place, when the Mississippi continually shifted its path and deposited sediment. That has been made impossible by the levees that now hold the river in place, protecting the region from flooding and providing a reliable navigation channel.

State officials say Louisiana has little choice but to move ahead with the project. The state has lost around 2,000 square miles of land over the past century, and the losses will accelerate as climate change exacerbates sea-level rise.

But there would be undeniable effects on commercial fishing for shrimp and oysters. The fresh water is expected to force commercial fishers to either move farther out or find a new line of work, and those impacted say the state is underestimating the fallout.

The Corps’ analysis acknowledges those effects and says an increase in local seafood prices is expected as a result. It notes that prices would rise even without the project, as Louisiana deals with the consequences of its fading habitat, but says that will occur decades sooner with the diversion.

The fresh water is also expected to lead to the “functional extinction” of bottlenose dolphins in some areas of the project, the Corps says. State officials point out that the dolphins are in those locations only because the coast has retreated to such a large degree.

It is also expected to lead to increased flood risk for some areas of Plaquemines.

Some $378 million has been set aside to help commercial fishers and others deal with the project’s effects. Oyster fishers and shrimpers in the area say it’s not nearly enough.

A second large-scale diversion on the east bank of the river, the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion, is also being planned, but final permits aren’t expected until 2026 for that project.

Email Mike Smith at msmith@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter, @MikeJSmith504. His work is supported with a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.