Engineers should solve problems, not prevent solutions, but these days the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seems to specialize in the latter. The Corps is refusing to reuse most of the 60 tons of sediment it dredges each year from the lower Mississippi River. The sediment could be used to restore coastal areas and prevent storm surge from overtopping area levees. Instead, the Corps takes the vast majority of this material — more than 85 percent of it — and either stores it at the river's mouth, moves it to a faster current in the river so it's carried out into the Gulf of Mexico or disposes of it in deep water offshore.
This kind of waste infuriates Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who says if he were given the sediment the parish could immediately start restoring its coast and increase storm protection. "We could build out there what was there 100 years ago," Nungesser says.
Plaquemines Parish is the unfortunate poster child for what happens when a coastal area loses its outlying barrier islands and nearby wetlands. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina pushed a 20-foot-plus storm surge across Plaquemines, destroying much of the southern part of the parish. Last year, Hurricane Ike again flooded the parish, causing millions of dollars in damages. Nungesser says the parish has spent $500 million in federal funds rebuilding, but nothing has been expended to prevent future storm damage.
Corps officials say their hands are tied because federal regulations require the agency to get rid of dredging sediment in the most cost-efficient manner possible. The Corps obviously thinks it's cheaper to dump the sediment out in the Gulf than to pump it into adjacent, soil-starved marshes and eroding wetlands.
It makes you wonder what goes into the Corps' calculations. Does the Corps not realize that Louisiana loses 24 miles of coastal wetlands every year? Our state has lost some 2,300 square miles of coast since the 1930s — an incalculable cost to our nation. Does the Corps take into account how these wetlands act as buffers against hurricanes and storm surges? Does the Corps contemplate how many lives and livelihoods are affected by the decision to throw away the very resource coastal parishes so desperately need?
Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, says if the Corps would re-use 75 percent of the sediment it dredges annually — 45 million cubic yards — then as much as 10 square miles of wetlands could be built every year. Over 20 years, that would mean 200 square miles of restored coast. Contrast that with the meager 39 miles of wetlands the Corps says it has created over the past 20 years from dredged materials.
Under the state's federally approved coastal resources plan, any sediment generated from dredging the Mississippi River must be used to offset coastal land loss. As ridiculous as it sounds, the Corps has said it follows the state's plan, even though it uses a mere 12 percent of the dredged materials for Louisiana's beneficial use program. State officials recently sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke asking for his help. The letter makes it clear that the state supports dredging the river to sustain navigation and commerce, but it wants to ensure "beneficial use of dredged materials becomes an integral part of the management of the river."
The state should have the upper hand in this argument. Under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, states may determine a federal agency's actions are inconsistent with the state's coastal resource plan and petition the Department of Commerce to intervene. Hopefully, it won't take long for Locke to realize if the Corps doesn't maintain Louisiana's coast, dredging the river eventually will be pointless because there will be no regional commerce to sustain.
Nungesser says he'd like to know the cost difference between dumping sediment instead of pumping it. He has asked the Corps numerous times for an answer, to no avail. He says pumping dredged materials into Plaquemines marshes makes genuine coastal restoration and protection possible for the parish. Without it, he says, "Plaquemines ain't going to be here."
That's a loss this state and country can ill afford.