Protecting Louisiana cities is causing big problems in Mississippi waters, Coast mayors say

This is the first time ever the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened twice in one year to release water from the flooding Mississippi River to protect New Orleans.

The action prompted Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich to call a meeting of Coast mayors on Tuesday at the Biloxi Visitors Center to see what can be done to protect South Mississippi.

Gilich said it wasn’t his intent to be alarmist, but to gather the facts and determine if the situation is as serious as it seems.

“This too shall pass is not a solution,” he said.

The mayors concluded the 90-minute meeting with a plan to turn up the pressure on Jackson and Washington, D.C., and get action to protect the Coast water, seafood and economy.

To solve this you’re going to have to first get Gov. Phil Bryant on your side, advised Victor Marvar, who has operated seafood processing plants for decades in Biloxi. Then contact the Coast senators and Rep. Steven Palazzo, he told them, and arrange for a meeting “all three of them together,” along with the director of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“You’ve got to do it through Washington with the Corps of Engineers,” he said.

Key issues

A chunk of the 90-minute meeting was devoted to looking at the situation and the impacts on South Mississippi.

The key points were:

The spillway was open 44 days from Feb. 27 to April 11, said Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Department of Marine Resources. It was open again May 10 and this release is expected to be as long or longer than the last, he said.

The decision to open the spillways rests in the hands of Louisiana and the Army Corps of Engineers, and is regulated by numbers in the Mississippi River Flow Design document that was written years ago..

Mississippi has no seat at the table, officials said. The releases have no benefit to Mississippi, only adverse effects, they said.

The releases have dropped the salinity throughout the Mississippi Sound all the way to the barrier islands 10 miles off the Coast, making the water murky. Salinity in the Sound usually is in the upper teens, said Joe Newell with DRM, but now is below 5 and down to 2 in some locations.

“It’s not freshwater — it’s river water,” said Moby Solangi, executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. The river brings pollution and pesticides from 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces, he said, creating dead zones where nothing can grow and live.

The oyster population is down 50% and the crab catch catch was 35% below average from February through April. The shrimp sampling shows a significant decrease and probably will delay the opening of the season this year.

Sound the alarm

Pass Christian Mayor Chipper McDermott said he’s been shouting for years that something has to be done.

“The second largest oyster reef in the world is right there,” he said, off the coast of Pass Christian. Oysters clean the water but many of the oysters have been dead for three years, he said, “So we do have a problem,” he said. “If you don’t have the seafood, what to we have in Mississippi?”

Solangi has been fighting to get attention on the environmental impact of the water release.

“I think it’s even worse then the BP oil spill,” he said. “We had 91 dead dolphins in 2010 during the oil spill. As of today we have 98 and counting,” he said, along with 143 dead turtles.

“Yes, Louisiana needs to protect its resources, its habitat and its population,” Solangi said. But he said Mississippi gets the flood water first and the problem is getting worse.

What’s next

Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened eight times in the 60 years between 1937 and 1997. It was opened six times in the last 19 years.

The Army Corps announced it will open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana and funnel part of the river’s flow into the Atchafalaya Basin, which is freshwater. This is only the third time that spillway has been opened in 65 years, the last time in 2011.

Louisiana is protecting its large cities and they have the benefit from the spillway openings, said Jewell. The Morganza is north of Baton Rouge and drains to the west, with the impacts in Louisiana, he said. The Bonnet Carre drains to the east and brings environmental and economic impact to Mississippi, he said.

“The way we’re doing it now is not working,” he said.

Jill Henson, director of marine fisheries research and development for the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, said it says a lot about where we live and where the priorities lie that so many mayors and other officials attended the meeting.

The GCRL has 40 years of sampling the Mississippi Sound. But the last time research was conducted into the effects of opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway was in 1973, said James Franks ,senior research scientist at the laboratory. “That event was a huge event, he said, an “ecological changer.”

There is a plan in place to study the effects of opening the spillway on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. But officials said none of the studies are looking at what will happen long-term in South Mississippi and how it will affect the restaurants, seafood suppliers, tourists and the reputation of this area of the Gulf Coast.

The National Association of Counties brought together the five Gulf Coast states after the BP oil spill, said Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco. They will meet again in Alabama in June, she said, to work on this problem and try to get the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana and Alabama and working together with them on a solution.