(NEW ORLEANS, LA – February 12, 2020) Today, the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE Council) voted to approve funding for two important restoration priorities in the Gulf, including investing $130 million in a critical diversion project in Louisiana’s Maurepas Swamp. As ecosystems and wildlife continue to recover nearly 10 years after the Gulf oil disaster, the River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project would use restoration funds from the oil spill to reconnect one of the largest forested wetlands complexes in the nation with the Mississippi River to prevent further wetland loss and habitat degradation. In the face of climate change and sea level rise, the project will benefit more than 45,000 acres, providing a wetland buffer that can reduce storm surge for communities stretching from the Greater Baton Rouge to the Greater New Orleans regions.
The vote came just days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its draft environmental assessment outlining options to mitigate potential impacts from the construction of the proposed West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project, which will impact forested wetlands in the immediate vicinity of the Maurepas Swamp. Unfortunately, that draft assessment did not include the alternative of using the construction of the Maurepas diversion itself as mitigation for the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project, representing a missed opportunity for combining restoration and protection projects together to maximize their benefits.
Restore the Mississippi River Delta – a coalition of national and local conservation organizations committed to coastal Louisiana restoration including Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation – issued the following statement in response:
“The River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project is vital to protecting one of the largest remaining swamps in the Gulf in the face of habitat loss and climate change. The RESTORE Council’s funding of this project will benefit wildlife, such as the bald eagle, that depend on the swamp for habitat and people that benefit from the buffer it provides from storms and sea level rise.
“Louisiana, once known for its abundant swamps, has increasingly become known for ‘ghost swamps’ devoid of life and productivity. We must act with urgency to protect what remaining swamp habitat exists for the benefit of wildlife and people in our state and across the nation.
“While this vote is a big step forward, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the power to help this restoration project advance with greater urgency and at lower cost to the public by including it as a mitigation option for the nearby West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project. Selecting the Maurepas diversion for mitigation makes sense for the ecosystem, and will enable the State of Louisiana to commit precious restoration funding to other important projects across the coast. It would also provide the most environmentally beneficial mitigation for the levee project by enhancing the ecosystem the levee project will damage.”
This diversion, planned near Angelina, will provide sediment and fresh water to existing wetlands in Maurepas swamp. Dominated by bald cypress and water tupelo trees, the Maurepas swamp complex is one of the largest forested wetlands in the nation. However, levees constructed along the river have isolated the area from spring floods and the vital fresh water, nutrients and sediment they bring. This isolation, coupled with rising salinities throughout the Pontchartrain Basin while the MRGO was open, has left the swamp in a state of rapid decline – trees are dying, and young trees are not growing to replace them. The River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project will benefit the swamp by reconnecting it with the river, aiding the prevention of further wetland loss and the conversion of swamps to marshes, as well as helping to offset future increases in salinity throughout the western Pontchartrain Basin. The fine grain sediment may also increase elevation to a point where there are periods without inundation so that seeds can germinate, perpetuating the forest into the future.
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Restore the Mississippi River Delta is working to protect people, wildlife and jobs by reconnecting the river with its wetlands. As our region faces the crisis of threatening land loss, we offer science-based solutions through a comprehensive approach to restoration. Composed of conservation, policy, science and outreach experts from Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, we are located in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Washington, D.C.; and around the United States. Learn more at MississippiRiverDelta.org and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.