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The Army Corps of Engineers opened another bay on the Morganza Spillway today. That move diverted still more water off the Mississippi through the bayous and rivers of the Atchafalaya Basin. The Corps says it will divert as much water as necessary to keep the Mississippi no higher than 45 feet, as it passes through Baton Rouge.
NPR's Greg Allen is in Baton Rouge, and he reports that some of that water may actually be welcome.
(Soundbite of running water)
GREG ALLEN: Few people pay closer attention to water conditions in the Atchafalaya Basin than those who make their living catching crawfish.
Mr. LEE WISDOM (Fisherman): The ramp is further out over there. It's about even with these trees over here. You just can't get to it.
ALLEN: Lee Wisdom and other craw fishermen in St. Martin Parish are launching their boats, not off the ramps, but from the levee. Water has already risen several feet here on Bayou Benoit. And water from the Morganza Spillway hasn't even reached this area yet.
Mike Bienvenu is head of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association. He's not sure whether the coming flood will improve the crawfish crop or not.
Mr. MIKE BIENVENU (President, Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association): 'Cause we don't like high water. High water is not good. We want good water. You know, all we need is three or four feet of water to fish crawfish. That's all we need.
ALLEN: Craw fishing has declined here in recent years. Bienvenu and others blame the web of canals and levees that oil and gas companies have put in the Atchafalaya Basin, keeping fresh water from some bayous. When the high water hits this area in coming weeks, it will flush out stagnant ponds with fresh water full of oxygen and sediment.
Harold Schoeffler, who's fished these waters his whole life, says that's bound to improve things in the basin. As water washes up on levees and other formerly dry areas, he says long-dormant crawfish will come out of the mud and start breeding.
Mr. HAROLD SCHOEFFLER: So you get this phenomenal production, and then shrimp. This is an estuary where shrimp from the Gulf come into this system and reproduce. So you have this phenomenal amount of nutrients and water that's going to cause an enormous growth of shrimp, which feed speckled trout and redfish and flounder. And the whole thing just takes off.
ALLEN: Short-term, the high water is threatening a huge animal population, including as many as 150 black bears, plus many deer and smaller mammals. Schoeffler, who's longtime chairman of the Sierra Club in this part of Louisiana, says for the most part, the animals should do fine. Water is rising slowly. And he says, even at the crest, there will be plenty of high ground in the basin.
Mr. SCHOEFFLER: We have spoil banks up there 50, 55 feet above sea level; many hills in the 35 to 45-foot range, which really are islands for wildlife.
ALLEN: It might be surprising that, although 1.5 million cubic feet of water per second may soon be released into this basin, those living here are remarkably undisturbed. That's in part because flooding is a natural part of this area's ecology. This flood event, the largest since 1973, will reshape the basin, filling in some swamps with sediment and turning them into hardwood forests. For Louisiana's long-eroding coastal wetlands, though, this flooding is a good thing.
Ivor van Heerden, a marine scientist formerly with Louisiana State University, says the tons of sediment washing down the river will spur plant and animal life and help build new wetlands.
Dr. IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Marine Scientist): In the central part of the coast, because of the Atchafalaya, we're going to definitely be creating new marshes. We're going to be rejuvenating a huge area of marsh, so a lot of benefits.
ALLEN: Paul Kemp of the National Audubon Society agrees. Unfortunately, he says, the place where new sediment and new marshes are needed most desperately - below New Orleans - won't be helped by the flood. Because of efforts to keep the Mississippi wide open for navigation, any sediment flowing down the river is likely to be dredged and dumped, not in coastal areas, but off the Continental Shelf.
Dr. PAUL KEMP (Vice-President, Gulf Coast Initiative, National Audubon Society): I would have loved to say this was the event we were waiting for, we were prepared and we were able to do 50 years of restoration in one year. I can't say that today.
ALLEN: Kemp, van Heerden and others active in coastal restoration, hope this event will convince the Army Corps of Engineers and other public agencies to take steps allowing not just the Atchafalaya, but also the Mississippi to actually benefit from the flood.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Baton Rouge.
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