Image: Aerial of sediment diversion project
Army Corps of Engineers
Work on the West Bay Sediment Diversion project aimed to divert part of the Mississippi River in an effort to protect and rebuild coastal land.
updated 1/26/2010 1:53:58 PM ET 2010-01-26T18:53:58

Six years after the Army Corps of Engineers hailed a land-building project near the mouth of the Mississippi River as a major step in saving coastal Louisiana, the project is being shut down after millions of dollars went into it.

Over the objections of some scientists, a panel overseeing the effort to save coastal Louisiana voted last week to close a river diversion at West Bay, a spot about 75 miles south of New Orleans. The cut in the river was supposed to create 10,000 acres of land. However, after six years and $33.3 million in work, it created little to no land.

Directing the Mississippi's flow into Louisiana's sinking coast through diversions is one of the chief methods being looked at to restore the river delta, one of the fastest eroding coastal areas in the world. South Louisiana has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s, an area roughly the size of Delaware.

The failure of the West Bay diversion highlights the problems federal and state governments face as they try to combat sea level rise and land loss. The project is being scrapped for reasons that have plagued other coastal restoration projects: the conflict between coastal restoration and maritime traffic, high costs, and untested scientific and engineering techniques.

The West Bay diversion is being closed because it led to shoaling of an anchorage spot for ships bound for New Orleans near Pilottown. The Army Corps estimated that it would cost more than $100 million to keep the anchorage free of mud; on Wednesday, a special task force said that cost was prohibitive.

Scientists on Thursday said the move was wrong-headed.

'Step backward,' adviser says
"For me, it's a step backward," said John Wells, a coastal geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who sits on a scientific advisory board looking at how to restore the Mississippi River delta.

Wells said closing the diversion was premature and that not enough time had passed to know for sure whether the diversion might have worked.

"From a scientific standpoint, this is a truly unique opportunity to gain an understanding if the diversions are going to be part of the tool bag," Wells said. He said expectations for the project's land-building capacity after six years were unreasonable.

Col. Alvin Lee, the corps' district engineer in New Orleans, said the diversion simply wasn't worth keeping open.

"It's a difficult decision to make but it was the right decision," Lee said. "It comes down to the benefits and costs."

He said the diversion was an experiment when it was constructed in 2003. "This was a study of a diversion and I think we've learned a significant amount from this diversion," Lee said.

Legal pact to keep anchorage open
Officials said they looked at a variety of alternatives to keep the diversion open, but that they were bound by legal agreements to maintain the Pilottown anchorage.

Sean Duffy, the president of the Gulf States Maritime Association, said the Pilottown anchorage has been in use for a century and serves as an important safe haven for ships, especially those in distress or caught in fog.

"Prior to the diversion being open, the anchorage never needed to be dredged," Duffy said. "Since the diversion, it has been dredged three times."

He said the maritime industry had hoped the diversion would be successful, but that it made no sense to keep it open because it didn't work as it was intended.

John Day, a coastal expert at Louisiana State University, said scrapping the West Bay project showed that coastal restoration was not a priority.

"It still means flood control and navigation have a much higher priority than coastal restoration," Day said. "The projections are that if we don't do anything, most of the coast will disappear. We have to do big things."

Now, officials are looking at diverting Mississippi water farther upriver, where river sediment may do more good and not get swept offshore, as may be happening at West Bay, which is next to the Gulf of Mexico.

"The idea of investigating in diversions farther upriver with better payout is a good decision," said Oliver Houck, a lawyer and coastal restoration expert at Tulane University in New Orleans. "It sort of shows that economic constraints force you to make better decisions."

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