Nearly 200 turn out to talk about Coast’s spillway disaster. Here’s how you can help.

Nearly 200 people listened intently as panel members each told how they knew South Mississippi was in trouble after the Bonnet Carré Spillway was opened twice this year, bringing flood waters from the Mississippi River into the Mississippi Sound.

When they left the Sun Herald Bonnet Carré Spillway Community Forum on Wednesday at the Knight Nonprofit Center, audience members asked what they can do to protect the Coast, the seafood and the estuary.

Adding to their concerns was hearing about other Mississippi River diversions that are in the works in Louisiana. The experts said the Mid-Breton diversion would introduce fresh water into the salt water of the Sound over a longer period of time, bringing additional damage to seafood, the fisheries and tourism.

“The salt water species we rely on can’t survive on fresh water,” said Captain George Ricks, a charter boat captain and president of the Save Louisiana Coalition.

“This has been the worst year for speckled trout I’ve ever had,” Ricks said.

The fresh water intrusion from the polluted Mississippi River closed the water off every beach along the Coast for much of the summer and killed most of the oysters and brown shrimp. It’s not over yet, audience members said after the forum. Now that the spillway has closed, they await a fish kill as the oxygen levels stabilize and the waters return to normal salinity.

“There are so many facets to this story. It’s very complicated,” said Sun Herald reporter Anita Lee, who has written extensively about the spillway and the blue-green algal bloom that followed the fresh water intrusion into the Mississippi Sound.

It’s a federal issue

The rules that regulate when the spillways open were written almost a century ago in the 1920s and ‘30s, said Moby Sonalgi, executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. The Army Corps of Engineers regulates when the spillway is opened based on the 1928 Flood Control Act.

Solangi said some very powerful people were in the room filled with engineers, environmentalists, those who fish for a living and those who are concerned about the future of South Mississippi

“All of you need to recognize your power,” Solangi told the audience and urged them to talk to their Congressional delegation in Washington and ask them to change the rules and provide “flexibility and direction” for the openings.

Dennis Lambert — who worked on the Breton diversions until he began questioning the project — said the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Board in Louisiana already has spent about $200 million.

“So you know how hard it is to stop that,” he said. So much money has been spent they can’t give it up — “They don’t want to give it up,” he said.

“The only people that can change what is going on are the people in this room and the state of Mississippi,” Lambert said.

Also a state issue

Several people in the crowd said they want the issue interjected into Mississippi’s governor race so they know where the candidates stand.

Lee said in this election year, she questions if support from Jackson is about the election or about protecting the Coast.

“It’s very much a concern who will stand up for us,” she said.

Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, is meeting with the Army Corps on a regular basis and will be with the Congressional delegation next month, said Rick Burris, deputy director of Marine Fisheries. He said Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann also are very involved.

This is not the first time the Bonnet Carré Spillway has opened, Burris said, but all previous times except in 2011 it was in the winter. This year it was open twice for the first time and a record number of days, and in May. “That’s a critical time for our fisheries,” he said.

Who to contact:

Now it’s a critical time for the Coast as progress continues in Louisiana toward building additional spillways.

Here is contact information for the Coast delegation in Washington, D.C.:

Sen. Roger Wicker — 555 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510

Phone: 202-224-6253

Coast office : 2909 13th St., 3rd Floor, Suite 303, Gulfport, MS 39501

Phone 228-871-7017

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith — 702 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510-2405

Phone 202-224-5054

Coast office: 2012 15th St., Suite 451, Gulfport, MS 39501

Phone 228-867-9710

Rep. Steven Palazzo — 2349 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515

Phone 202-225-5772

Coast office: 84 48th St. Gulfport, MS 39507

Phone 228-864-7670

Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.