Published: Tuesday, July 05, 2011, 4:30 AM
The Army Corps of Engineers has finally unveiled a long-awaited $446 million plan to rebuild the Caminada shoreline south of Port Fourchon and the mostly disappeared Shell Island to the east of Grand Isle.
View full sizeIt calls for a radically different approach to coastal restoration, one that involves using sand deposits miles offshore to restore a sand dune that would reach 7 feet above sea level along the Caminada shoreline, and deploying a 12-mile pipeline to move sand from the Mississippi River to rebuild the large barrier island to 6 feet above sea level.
Though the two projects have already been authorized by Congress, the costs are nearly double what was originally budgeted. As a result, the corps says it will move forward only on the Caminada shoreline restoration for now, leaving Shell Island for later.
Louisiana’s top coastal official, Garret Graves, says the corps already should have begun construction of the two projects, and that the rising costs are the corps’ own fault.
“Here we are approaching four years down the road for something that should have been done in months,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “This is the corps’ process, the corps’ attorneys, being incapable of responding to this urgent coastal crisis we have in Louisiana.”
The two-project Barataria Basin Barrier Shoreline plan is part of a broader strategy by federal and state officials to restore wetlands and barrier shoreline between the mouth of the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche, both to re-establish natural features that support wildlife and fisheries and to increase land mass in hopes of depressing hurricane storm surges before they reach populated areas.
View full sizeAlex Brandon, The Times-Picayune archiveElmer’s Island, Belle Pass and the Caminada Moreau Headland were photographed in July 2004.
The two projects were authorized in the $1.9 billion Louisiana Coastal Area restoration program in 2007, which allowed the corps to build both as long as the cost stayed below $364 million. That didn’t happen.
“We are recommending that we be given funds to build the whole thing,” said Fay Lachney, senior plan formulator with the corps. “Absent that, we’re saying we’d like to move forward immediately on Caminada while Congress considers giving us additional authority to do Shell Island, too.”
It’s unclear when Congress would act on such a request. Coastal projects are usually authorized as part of a Water Resources Development Act, but there have only been two such compendiums of water projects approved since 2000.
Equally unclear is whether money will be available. Congress has been loath to finance new corps construction projects in recent years.
Graves said that despite the corps plan to delay construction on Shell Island, the state will begin construction of part of the project, using money from the separate federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program and a portion of the remaining $120 million given to the state by BP to build sand berms to capture oil from last year’s BP oil spill.
The state also is already using money from other state and federal programs to begin work on the Caminada project, with the expectation that their investments in both projects will be credited toward the requirement that the state pay 35 percent of construction costs.
Both projects would mark dramatic changes in the strategies used by federal and state officials to rebuild rapidly eroding segments of Louisiana’s coastline.
The Caminada project calls for building a 13-mile-long sand dune between Belle Pass and Caminada Pass, which separates the area from Grand Isle. The 880 acres of beach and dune would rise to 7 feet above sea level and be 290 feet wide. On the land side of the dune, sediment would fill open water areas to create 1,186 acres of marsh platform that will be 2 feet above sea level.
The plans call for dredges to mine coarse-grain sand from Ship Shoal, which is about 40 miles southwest of the project, for the dunes. Fine grain sediment for the marsh platform would be dredged from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico about 1.5 miles south of the project.
State and federal officials have eyed Ship Shoal as a source of sand for restoration projects for more than 20 years, but this is the first time it will be used for a major project. The shoal is the outermost relic of a prehistoric delta of the Mississippi River.
While both projects are authorized under legislation aimed at restoring the environmental services of land lost to erosion, the Caminada project would also increase protection from hurricane storm surges for the sprawling Port Fourchon offshore oil service industry base. It also would reduce damage to interior wetlands from surge.
But Lachney said the corps remains concerned about two potential obstacles to beginning construction of the Caminada project: a question about who will ultimately own the land created by the project; and pollution along the project shoreline remaining from the BP oil spill.
Much of the land on which the project will be built is owned by the Edward Wisner Donation Trust, which was donated in 1914 to the City of New Orleans under a 100-year trust agreement.
Much of Port Fourchon, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port’s onshore operations; facilities owned by Chevron Oil, and a number of other oil and gas production facilities all sit on Wisner land.
Under the trust, the city receives 34.8 percent of the revenue, Charity Hospital and the state of Louisiana receive 12 percent, and the rest goes to Tulane University, the Salvation Army, and heirs of Edward Wisner. The city’s revenue is distributed through its Wisner Fund as grants for health, beautification, education and capital projects.
Lachney said senior corps officials have recommended that the property for construction of the dune and wetlands be bought, with mineral rights remaining with the original owner. But she said the corps’ New Orleans District officials are recommending instead that Wisner and the other owners grant easements that would assure the project would be protected.
Cathy Norman, executive director of the trust, said she also is in favor of an easement, rather than sale of the land.
The BP oil could be more of a problem, Lachney said.
“We cannot acquire any property if it is contaminated,” she said. “Any property, before we acquire it for a project, would have to be cleaned.”
Wisner officials have been trying to get BP to clean its property since the first oil washed ashore weeks after the April 20 accident, Norman said. At the moment, cleanup operations by contractors working for the joint BP-Coast Guard oil spill cleanup program are on hold because of nesting birds, she said.
But Joel Waltzer, an attorney representing the trust, said BP officials seem to be waffling on how clean they plan to make the Wisner property.
“We’ve been told now that the removal is stagnant and that the Unified Command seems content to leave oil on the beach, against our will,” he said. “To the extent any of this jeopardizes critical restoration projects, that needs to be changed.
“The standards for cleanup are attenuating over time, appear to be getting weaker, and either the Coast Guard or the state needs to make sure the cleanup is done to the satisfaction of the corps,” Waltzer said, “because without restoration, there won’t be a beach, and without a beach, there won’t be an interior wetland separating the Gulf from Houma, not to mention Port Fourchon, a critical asset to the state and the nation.”
Graves agreed. Last week, he complained to a congressional committee about the slow pace of cleanup efforts and their potential to delay a raft of restoration projects.
“The reality is that there’s oil in the Gulf today, and we likely will see oil washing up from these submerged oil mats and other sources for several years,” he said. “To say we can’t do restoration anywhere where there’s oil would mean we wouldn’t build restoration projects for years in coastal Louisiana and that’s obviously not an option.”
The Shell Island project, if it eventually moves forward, would rebuild a 4 1/2 mile long barrier island in a concave shape from the western side of the mouth of the Empire Waterway, tying into Bastian Island. The project would be built upon the skeletal remains of the original barrier islands that once protected lush wetlands stretching to the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish.
Today, large swaths of those wetlands have disappeared, in part because of the erosion of the barrier islands, leaving mostly open water between the remaining island dots and shoals and the fishing port of Empire.
The plan calls for mining sand from the Mississippi River near Nairn and moving it 12 miles by pipeline to the island location, where it would be stacked to create an island with dunes 6 feet above sea level. Sediment for a marsh platform behind the new island would come from an area a mile and a half south of the Empire jetties. Graves said the state is working independently on a similar plan to build its part of the island, using existing money.
The state and federal agencies also are rebuilding other islands from the river’s mouth to Grand Isle, including Scofield, Chenier Ronquille, and Grand Terre, using money from a variety of state and federal sources, including the money BP made available for berm construction.
Both of the federal projects also would require the state to maintain their size over the next 50 years. The Caminada project would require the state to pay the additional costs of moving sediment dredged during routine maintenance of Bayou Lafourche to an offshore location near the beach once every 10 years, at a cost of $7.35 million each time.
The Shell Island project would require major sand replacement at 20 and 40 years after completion, at a cost of $63.3 million and $60.9 million, respectively.
The corps is seeking public comment on the Barataria plan, available on the web at http://www.lca.gov.
The corps will hold two public meetings on the Barataria restoration plan from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 26 at Woodland Plantation, 21997 Highway 23, in Port Sulphur, and from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 28 at South Lafourche High School, 16911 East Main St., in Galliano.
Comments or questions on the draft also can be sent to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, Attention: William P. Klein, Jr., P.O. Box 60267, New Orleans LA 70160-0267, or by calling 862-2540, or by fax to 862-2208. Comments will be accepted through Aug. 8.
Mark Schleifstein can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3327.