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La. Wants to Change River's Course to Save Coast
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La. Wants to Change River's Course to Save Coast

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La. Wants to Change River's Course to Save Coast

La. Wants to Change River's Course to Save Coast
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Sludge of Sediment Pours Out of Pipeline i

A sludge of sediment pours out of a pipeline in southeastern Louisiana, where government officials are dredging mud and silt from shipping channels and pumping it into the vanishing marshland. "The discharge pipe meanders back and forth like the river once did, creating little mini-deltas of sand and clay," says Ted Falgout, executive director of Port Fourchon. Kathleen Schalch, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Sludge of Sediment Pours Out of Pipeline

A sludge of sediment pours out of a pipeline in southeastern Louisiana, where government officials are dredging mud and silt from shipping channels and pumping it into the vanishing marshland. "The discharge pipe meanders back and forth like the river once did, creating little mini-deltas of sand and clay," says Ted Falgout, executive director of Port Fourchon.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR

Find Out More

See an example of the gates Louisiana is building into the levees to let water and sediment flow into the marshes. The Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion is 15 miles downriver from New Orleans.

Windell Curole Shows How Marshes Have Disappeared i

Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, points to a map depicting solid marsh, most of which has since been replaced by open water. "And that has happened in my lifetime. When I was a kid, it was solid," he says. Kathleen Schalch, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Windell Curole Shows How Marshes Have Disappeared

Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, points to a map depicting solid marsh, most of which has since been replaced by open water. "And that has happened in my lifetime. When I was a kid, it was solid," he says.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR

In what would be an engineering feat unlike any in the nation's history, Louisiana wants to move the Mississippi River as part of a master plan to save the state's vanishing coastal wetlands. Many experts believe it's the only thing that will work.

Southeast Louisiana is the fastest disappearing landmass on Earth. On average, every half hour or so, a piece the size of a football field slips into the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's like the Gulf of Mexico has gotten 20 to 30 miles closer to everybody in southeast Louisiana," Windell Curole says as he stands on top of the levee system in Bayou Lafourche. As general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, it's his job to try to hold back the sea.

To the south, people have abandoned their homes as the land has turned to marsh, then to open water. Soon, Curole says, even the earthen levee may not be enough to protect them.

"We either start tackling the problem or we help people move and communities move out, and all the infrastructure along with it," he says.

Coastal erosion threatens New Orleans, as well as oil facilities vital to the nation's energy supply, ports that handle more than half of its grain shipments, and the estuaries that produce a third of its seafood. But to understand why the coast is vanishing, it is necessary to know how it got there.

Denise Reed, a geology professor at the University of New Orleans, says the whole coast of Louisiana was built by the river, which kept changing course, squiggling back and forth like a loose garden hose and spreading sediment everywhere it went. But since humans tamed it with levees, the river can only build land in one place — farther and farther out to sea.

"Until we're at the point where we are now, where the water and the sediment that comes out of the mouth of the river goes straight into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico," Reed says.

And that sediment is never to be seen again. State and federal officials have tried for two decades to find enough sediment to shore up the coastline. They are dredging mud and silt from shipping channels and pumping it into drowning marshland. They're also building gates into the levees along the Mississippi to let some of the water and sediment flow into the marshes.

But it's not enough. For every square mile of land the state has created, five more miles have slipped away. That's why state officials and scientists like Reed want to go further and actually change the river's course.

"We cannot continue wasting 120 million tons of sediment a year into the deep waters of the Gulf. It's ridiculous," Reed says.

Louisiana's new master plan to save the coastline calls for diverting the Mississippi to the east or west or even both, somewhere below New Orleans. The sediment would fall into shallow water, where the winds and tides could sculpt it into land.

The state Legislature unanimously approved the master plan recently.

"When Katrina and Rita hit, all of a sudden you had a big exclamation point put on the urgency," says Sidney Coffee, chairwoman of the state's restoration authority.

Coffee says a new federal law will give the state money from off-shore oil leases to help pay for the design, excavation and construction. The final cost could be up to $5 billion.

The biggest challenge will be to keep the big ships moving up and down the river. Michael Lorina, president of the river pilots' trade association, says he worries that freighters would have to pass through locks.

"They would be stacked up all over the place, and I see this as something that will add hours upon already a long transit up the Mississippi River," Lorina says.

Even if planners and engineers can minimize the delays, there will still be oyster fishermen to contend with. Flushing freshwater into salty estuaries will kill oysters.

Kerry St. Pe, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, says he fears that lawsuits will delay the project for years.

"No one sector of our population wants to see their way of life annihilated. And I believe that within 10 years, if we don't see significant land-building, that it's going to be too late," St. Pe says.

State officials agree, but they argue that the river that built the land will have to be part of the plan to save it.

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