Repeated openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, never contemplated when it was built 91 years ago, threaten an ecosystem that has sustained South Mississippi and Louisiana residents for centuries.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the Bonnet Carré to prevent Mississippi River flooding in New Orleans, but Coast residents on less populated shores of South Mississippi and Louisiana feel the fallout. The fresh, polluted water floods Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi Sound.
For the first time in history, the spillway has opened two years in a row — 2018 and 2019 — and two times in one year — 2019.
Dolphins and oysters are dying. Shrimp are disappearing. Fish are covered in lesions. And the oxygen-starved Dead Zone, documented annually in the Gulf of Mexico, is expected this summer to be the size of Massachusetts, which is close to the 2017 record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.
Fishermen and seafood processors are suffering financially, with charter bookings and commercial landings down. Tourism officials worry further fouling of the waters, and the publicity it brings, could scare away visitors, as the BP oil spill did.
“There’s no precedent for what’s currently happening in the Mississippi watershed,” said Joe Jewell, directory of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
“The state of Mississippi wants a seat at the table when these decisions are made. We want the Corps and the state of Louisiana to consider the environmental and economic impacts on the state of Mississippi.”
“We don’t want to be confrontational or adversarial with the Corps. We want to become participatory in this process for the state of Mississippi.”
But the 1928 Flood Control Act, along with the Army Corps flood control plans and manual, give the U.S. Army Corps sole authority to order the spillway opened. The Corps’ New Orleans District opens and operates the floodway, subject to approval from the president of the Mississippi River Commission, who is also commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division which includes the New Orleans District.
“Do we ask people if it’s OK to operate the structures? The answer is, ‘No,’ ” said Charles Camillo, who serves as executive director of the MRC and executive assistant with the Mississippi Valley Division, whose boundaries encompass the river.
“It’s part of a system, and the system is designed to convey that water through the seven states of the lower Mississippi Valley. If you were to try to go through each individual instance in how we manage this water through that system, everybody would have their own myopic view of the world.
“We’ve got to look at it from the larger, comprehensive, systematic viewpoint because water has to go somewhere. If you take it from one place, it has to go to another. That’s always going to be the case.
“If somebody were advocating to push the water somewhere else, they probably don’t really understand the ramifications of what that would mean to the other area they’re going to push the water to. You have a system that is designed to operate a certain way. What everybody does have is predictability on what’s going to happen. They know where the water is going to go and when — if that system operates as designed.”
The ‘if’ appears to be a big one in a time of climate change. Camillo doesn’t talk about climate change. Instead, he says the nation is going through “a wet period,” just as it has in the past.
Could ecosystem collapse?
The Corps is, in fact, taking a beating from communities on the losing side of its flood-management decisions along the bloated Mississippi River, which drains 41 percent of the contiguous states and has the world’s third largest drainage basin, exceeded only by the Amazon and Congo rivers.
As the river has flooded one community after another, residents have called on the Corps to reexamine flood control policies developed at the turn of the century and never fully implemented as intended.
“We can’t continue to contain this river using a 1920s plan and 1920s technology,” third-generation charter boat captain Mike Freeman of Pass Christian said at a recent public meeting. The way he sees it, recent history forebodes more frequent openings of the Bonnet Carré.
“I’ve seen dead turtles plenty of times,” he said. “I’ve seen dead dolphins. I’ve just never seen this volume. It doesn’t even register anymore.”
Freeman spoke at a meeting where Louisiana and Mississippi fishermen came together over the Bonnet Carré for the first time in recent memory. At past meetings, Mississippi fishermen complained about the spillway opening to protect New Orleans from flooding — its purpose — while the Mississippi Coast suffered.
The meeting Freeman and around 200 others attended at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport was an eye-opener for Mississippi and Louisiana fishermen because both groups are suffering financially from the spillway opening and wonder whether their livelihoods will disintegrate.
George Ricks, a charter boat captain and president of the Save Louisiana Coalition, reminded the group: “Our waters run into your waters.”
Ricks is from St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans on the shores of Lake Borgne and Breton Sound.
He has become a student of salinity and freshwater intrusion in coastal waterways. The freshwater not only dilutes salinity to a point that aquatic life is unable to survive, it carries a load of chemical-laden river sediment that creates algae blooms. Decaying blooms reduce dissolved oxygen levels in the water, creating dead zones.
River water also flows into south Louisiana waters below New Orleans from Mardi Gras Pass, where a channel breached the river in 2012, from the Caenarvron diversion completed in 1991 and from other openings.
“We’re suffering from the west, we’re suffering from the north and now we’re suffering from the spillway,” Ricks said. “So, we’ve got a triple whammy in our area. Now, all the oysters are dying.
“Anything that can’t move gets killed.”
The Save Louisiana Coalition is fighting two more planned diversions in Louisiana that supporters say will add land to the disappearing Coast, while critics contend more land will be lost and the ecosystem further compromised.
“That’s the thing” Ricks said. “We could have a total collapse of our ecosystem.”
Recovery gains ‘wiped out’
While serving as chief engineer for the Army Corps, Maj. Gen. Edgar Jadwin drew up plans for flood control along the Mississippi River that departed from the levees-only policy the Corps followed before the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 proved levees inadequate.
The Jadwin Plan incorporated outlets and floodways, including the Bonnet Carré. Congress adopted the plan as part of the 1928 Flood Control Act, a response to what was then the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.
Based on past records, the plan predicted the spillway would need to be opened no more than once every five years. The Corps opened the spillway for the first time in 1937 and the five-year prediction held true until the 1970s, when the Corps opened the spillway three times.
The spillway opened only once in the 80s and once in the 90s. It has opened five times since 2008, with the most prolonged opening before this year being 44 days during record river flooding in 2011. For 21 of those days, the spillway exceeded its maximum flow rate of 250,000 cubic feet per second.
The two 2019 openings have so far dragged on for 76 days, the longest in history when the two openings in February and May 10 openings are combined. The spillway remains open today.
The 2011 opening proved disastrous for the Mississippi Coast. A federal fisheries emergency was declared. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources gathered the evidence for the emergency declaration:
▪ Oyster mortality in the Sound was estimated in July 2011 at 86 percent, with a minimum three years needed for recovery.
▪ Algae blooms in the western Sound led to significant fish kills observed on Long Beach and Gulfport shorelines.
▪ Blue crab landings over the summer were down 53.5%.
The MDMR received $10.9 million in disaster relief funds for recovery of oyster and blue crab stocks.
The MDMR’s Jewell said the oyster industry was beginning to recover in the productive western sound. The agency also worked to establish private reefs around Deer Island, with planters enthused this year about the potential their new farms held.
And then the Bonnet Carré opened, not once, but twice.
“All those gains from the 2011 disaster have the potential to be negated — wiped clean.” Jewell said. “We can no longer manage or respond to disasters like we did before.
“We have to respond to the cumulative impacts because this opening has the potential to negate all the gains we made. We can no longer operate year by year.”
The Corps’ Catch 22
Gov. Phil Bryant has requested yet another disaster declaration.
Moby Solangi, who founded Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport and has a doctorate in marine biology, is tracking dolphin deaths.
The numbers are grim: 129 dolphin carcasses have washed up on Mississippi shores this summer, many with lesions the fresh water causes. The deaths of 154 sea turtles have been documented on the Mississippi Coast, he said.
In the year of the BP oil catastrophe, when millions of gallons of oil washed into the Gulf, 91 dolphins and 209 sea turtles died.
“This was a freshwater river flood that came into a saltwater environment and to the inhabitants of an estuarine environment, this is the equivalent of a hurricane,” Solangi said. “It wiped out their habitat. It destroyed their food sources. All the things that support life in that environment have been disrupted and in some cases destroyed.
“When the links start breaking, it has a domino effect.”
The MDMR says oyster mortality is at 80% and blue-crab landings are down 40 percent from the five-year average.
The Coast depends on the Mississippi Sound and Gulf of Mexico beyond — for its fishing and tourism industries, for recreation, for its very identify.
So what can be done?
Political leaders say the ultimate answer is a change in federal law and the regulations that sprang from it.
Mississippi officials will be meeting June 24 with the man ultimately charged with deciding when to open the Bonnet Carré and Morganza spillways, Maj. Gen. Richard G. Kaiser, president the the Mississippi River Commission and commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley division.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who requested the meeting and has written the Corps about the spillway’s detrimental impacts, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and MDMR Executive Director Joe Spraggins will attend. They plan to talk about what spillway openings impacts and a way forward.
Spraggins said that Kaiser is set next month to become deputy director of the entire Corps. Spraggins believes having someone in Washington who understands the spillway’s impact will be helpful to South Mississippi.
“If we’re going to change how the Corps operates, the law is going to have to change because the Corps operates off what is written,” Spraggins said.
“If it’s going to change, the Corps is going to have to be given different rules to operate.
“I’ve talked to them. The Corps is trying to do what’s right. They’re in a catch-22 right now. I wouldn’t want to be that two-star general because everything he does is going to hurt something.”