Thursday, April 18, 2024

Louisianans have sought to tame the Mississippi River for decades and now may choose to set it free

by BIZ Magazine

By Oscar Tickle, LSU Manship School News Service

POINT À LA HACHE, La. — Don Beshel walks out of his office and looks out on his marina. Where once were dozens of boats now sit only a few. The levee has more boats washed up from flooding than line his docks.

The air here used to have salty undertones. Now fresh water from the Mississippi River has mixed with salty water from the Gulf. The air is now stale – along with Beshel’s business.

He blames a breach in the levee downriver back in 2011. Before the breach, oysters and saltwater fish like mullet thrived around his marina. Now the water brims with different kinds of fish. The old marsh is gone, replaced by a nearly unrecognizable landscape lined with rows of black-willow trees. Boats cannot find their way out of the marsh due to silt dumped by fresh water from the breach.

 Beshel’s world is changing around him. For the people upriver in the Barataria region of the river delta, things are about to change, too, as scientists and others implement a plan to restore something of the untamed river of the past – and blunt coastal erosion often blamed for increasing the impact of hurricane storm surges on New Orleans and other cities.

The levee breach that changed life in Point à la Hache was a natural occurrence, but now the state’s coastal restoration agency is spending billions of dollars to create controlled river diversions in other places to try to recreate some of the marshland that had provided the hurricane buffer.

Without the changes, storm surges could cause more than $31 billion in damage annually in Louisiana, according to a worst-case estimate last week from the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

“We live in a delta. It’s a dynamic system, and it’s always going to change,” said Michael Hopkins, coastal program director of the Pontchartrain Conservancy. “The only reason we have become so used to it is because of the levee system.”

State lawmakers and many environmental experts strongly support the plans. But the changes will reshape the ecology of the land and water while touching humans in ways they won’t all welcome.

“Point à la Hache is a dead town now, because most of the money came from the oysters and the fisheries,” said Beshel, 65, owner of Beshel’s Marina.


The Mississippi River once whipped wildly across the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, like a runaway fire hose, all the while providing sediment to the land and helping stop erosion. After a great flood in 1927, humans built levees and straightened the river to curb flooding. They built these levees so close to the river that it had no room to move. As an unforeseen consequence, the river stopped building land.

With the fresh water contained by the levees, saltwater from the Gulf filled areas outside the levees. Over time, people who lived in the area became used to their life of salty water and even saltier fish. Many, like Beshel, built livelihoods around the changed landscape, drawing on the new saltwater resources including catering to recreationists.  

Until 201l. That’s when the Mississippi broke through the east-bank levee at Point à la Hache, forming what scientist called the Mardi Gras Pass, named for when the breach occurred, and bringing change to the land and to Beshel’s Marina and others.

When a river splits off from its path, scientists call it a diversion. A natural diversion like the Mardi Gras Pass had not formed for decades, and now the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana wants to build new marshland by creating its own diversions.


One planned diversion is the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion in Ironton, Louisiana, 15 miles upstream from the Mardi Gras Pass on the river’s west bank. The Mardi Gras Pass hints at where the new diversion would take the people and sealife in the area, but the two passes have distinct features that set them apart.

“This is based off 20 to 30 years of science,” said Theryn Henkel, a coastal resources scientist with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “It’s not like we woke up one day and said, ‘You know what? Let’s punch a hole in the levee.’”

Ecologists like Henkel have been studying the area around the Mardi Gras Pass since its creation to figure out what needs to be considered when building the new diversion.

A new diversion would affect livelihoods. The choice to move forward with construction is in the hands of those in coastal protection agencies, not those who live in the area. Plaquemines Parish, with both the Mardi Gras Pass and proposed diversion, has around 23,000 residents. The impact would be felt most acutely by people who rely on the water for jobs or recreation.

            “It’s really ambiguous to see who’s responsible for stopping it or keeping it,” said Owen Weller, a Pontchatrain Conversancy wetland ecologist. “It’s private land owned by people who don’t live in Louisiana.”

Point à la Hache had no choice when the river punched through the levee at the Mardi Gras Pass. Before, the town was known for saltwater marine life exports. On Mardi Gras in 2011, two breaches were detected 0.7 mile from each other. One flowed through a popular road and was quickly patched up.

The levee breach had flushed out salty water, making the habitat unsuitable for oysters within months. They soon died. Now the line of habitable land for saline creatures is projected to shift drastically 20 to 30 years from now.


While oysters are immobile, the saltwater fish are not. They’re expected to move farther into the Gulf as the salinity changes.

A wetland biologist like Tasia Danapolis is all too familiar with this process.

“The locale of what is suitable for specific organisms is going to shift, mainly gulfward,” said Danapolis, a Pontchartrain Conservancy fisheries biologist.

And as that line of fish and oysters shifts away from the humans who harvest them, marina owners like Beshel must adapt. Beshel was told in Point à la Hache city council meetings that the Mardi Gras Pass would bring more fish and land to the area, but all he sees while on his boat is destruction of the land he once knew.

“Where I saw land there’s no land. Where the canals and the bayous are, they’re filled in,” he said. “I mean … we’re going totally backwards.”

Geologically, he’s right. The levees created a completely different land consisting of tall, yellow oyster grass that could be compared to fields of wheat over the water. The saltwater marsh was resilient in the face of storms.

Now water rushing from the 2011 breach is depositing sediment, changing the ecosystem. Tall black willow trees create a vast green line along the edge of every waterway along with large oak trees. Willows and oaks couldn’t survive in a saltwater environment.

“You’re going to see beautiful trees growing out in the bayou,” Beshel said. “Behind the trees where there was two miles of land, there’s no land!”

People involved in planning the new diversion want to restore what’s been lost. Engineers took note of the sediment-rich location that the Mardi Gras Pass sits on and how land developed around it. They found a place for the new diversion that contains similar conditions and, they say, even more potential to create land.

To them, today’s ecosystem is not natural and, on a geological timescale, the landscape has been salty only for around a hundred years.

People like Beshel on the east bank are experiencing this firsthand, but those on the west bank are experiencing rapid land loss where no sediment is replenishing the land.


That is why the Coastal Restoration and Protection Agency proposed the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion on the opposite side of the river from Point à La Hache. It’s estimated cost: $1.4 billion.

“These diversions sound really expensive on the front end, but once you turn them on it’s really just a matter of maintenance,” said Henkel, the coastal resources scientist. She has been tapped to manage the new diversion.

This cost is not final and is taken from the authority’s 2023 fiscal year draft that awaits public hearings in coming months and final approval in March. The new diversion would be controlled via dam so, unlike the Mardi Gras Pass, its effects would not be as extreme or fast. Henkel said freshwater may have to be reintroduced slowly.

There will be vast control over water flow, and it will be closed fully if there is an incoming storm or waters are unusually high. It is also possible that the ecosystem could go into shock if freshwater is not properly reintroduced since there has been no freshwater on the west bank in decades. Locals from the town of Buras said they do not think new sediment will help because there is no land for it to cling to.

Construction on the diversion would begin in 2023 – 25 feet deep with 15-foot earthen levees on either side – but water would not flow through the pass until 2025. Design details are under debate, but a mouth that disburses sediment quickly is the goal.

John Lopez, a former coastal program director of the Pontchartrain Conservancy, said the Mardi Gras Pass has grown so much land that it’s close to being upgraded to the status of a delta itself.

As the land changes, new plans are being made. The everyday fishermen feel hopeless, left behind, as if their voices don’t matter.

Owen Weller, a wetland ecologist, said most scientists struggle with competing values.

“It’s really hard to balance myself thinking on a geological timescale. It’s always tempting, as an ecologist, to remove humans from the scenario and just look at things for what they might be,” Weller said.

Those affected are not being left completely out of the equation. The environmental impact statement for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion details how the fishermen in the area would be affected. It recommends the allocation of money for area marinas to finance the purchases of bigger boats and larger equipment that will help them get further into the Gulf to chase the fish that swam away to saltier waters.

Back on the east bank, Don Beshel looks at the sunset over the marsh. He thinks about running the marina with his brother and how much things have changed since the marina opened 50 years ago. He’s still here, even though the land he knew is not.

“It’s very disheartening because I’ve been working here all my life and doing this all my life,” Beshel said. “At the end of my life now, I’m trying to figure out how to reinvent the wheel over and over again.”

Reporters Tyler Johnson and Julia Jackson contributed to this report.

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