Losing People with the Land

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA)’s “Coastal Connections on the Water” event in on September 12 in Buras, LA, was illuminating in more ways than one. For someone like me who has a 101-level knowledge of sediment diversions, I came away with more engineering knowledge than I started with and a firmer belief that large-scale projects that more closely mimic nature–like the Mid-Barataria diversion–can work. If we are going to combat the catastrophic land loss we created with our levee systems and extractive industries, we’re going to need every tool in the toolbox. But if part of CPRA’s and co-hosts the Restore the Mississippi Delta Coalition’s purpose of the event was to seem more engaged with the citizens of Plaquemines Parish, as their event flyer indicated, I fear the presentation and boat tour may have had the opposite effect.I had a feeling as soon as I arrived that the event would be more contentious than its organizers probably hoped. As I walked from where my car was parked on the side of the narrow strip of highway between the Mississippi River and the Bay Pomme d’Or, I saw a fisher/advocate friend of mine who I knew was fiercely anti-diversion. I also saw two state troopers who I thought were there to facilitate parking, but might also have been a sign that CPRA knew exactly how contentious the event would be. More on that to come. As we entered the fishing lodge that was hosting the presentation, my fisher friend introduced me to a shrimper, the wife of a worker in a menhaden processing plant, and a historian running for Plaquemines Parish council on an anti-diversion platform. Unlike many of the attendees like myself who were from New Orleans or Baton Rouge, they were all from Plaquemines and deeply connected to the land there.They were also some of the only attendees who came in skeptical of or outright hostile to the diversions. Because I work with fishers on a variety of issues and because I have always gravitated to the bad kids in the back of the classroom, I stuck with this group for most of the evening. The schedule was relatively tight, so our hosts served us some generous plates of quality BBQ and quickly herded us into the lodge for a presentation from CPRA about the diversion project. The powerpoint was beautiful and polished, and the speaker delivered his presentation efficiently and effortlessly. It seemed like he had given it dozens of times before. As someone who occasionally gives public presentations, I was really impressed.But it didn’t take long for the diversion skeptics to ask questions. After the first question from my fisher friend, the presenter held his hand up and brusquely stated that there would time for questions at the end but that he wouldn’t answer them mid-presentation. Fairly standard. Gotta control the crowd when you’re on a schedule. The next question came a little later from the historian, and the presenter from CPRA was quick to shut it down. He assured the crowd there would be time for questions at the end. He seemed a little bristly, but I sympathized with his need to get through the program. There were no more questions and he flew through the rest of the presentation. After he was done, he checked his watch and said everyone needed to get going right then. It surprised me because for someone who clearly had his presentation down pat, nothing about the timing of the Q&A should have needed to be changed on the fly.The plan was to travel by bus to some boats that would take us to see some rebuilt land. We needed to be back before dark, so our hosts said we would have to ask questions during the tour. This rankled those who had been waiting to be heard. They wanted their questions and concerns heard by the whole group. They felt dismissed.People started to raise their voices. Rather than allow for some emotional disagreement, one of the hosts told the fisher she was out of line. Eventually two state troopers were summoned who had been waiting outside. This was an unnecessary and dangerous provocation that could potentially have landed someone in jail for what was essentially an engineering debate. It fueled the anger and fear that borders on paranoia that the residents of Plaquemines carry with them about these projects. Right or wrong, this will be an emotional process.They’re angry and I think they should be. They didn’t cause the land loss; the oil companies did. Now they’re being asked to bear the brunt of the effects and be polite at the same time. To me, the least we can do is let people emote as the land beneath them literally sinks into the ocean. I conversed with locals all evening and a recurring theme emerged: Bureaucrats from Baton Rouge are teaming up with rich folks in New Orleans to conduct an experiment in Plaquemines. The engineers and environmentalists don’t live in the affected area, and they don’t care what happens to the residents and fishing communities. The projects are intended to benefit the cities up north at the cost of the villages down south. I don’t think that’s all true, but I don’t think that it’s all false either. My fisher friend no longer felt welcome and didn’t want to stick around for the boat trip and questions. She already felt disrespected and felt unwelcome in her own parish. The rest of us boarded the bus to where the boats were supposedly waiting for us. The boats weren’t there when we arrived at the bayou, so we sat on the bus for another 20 minutes. It was unclear whether this was a miscommunication by the organizers. But for the locals I was with, it was ironclad proof that the CPRA shut down the Q&A portion of their presentation because they were uninterested in having a dialogue with the residents of Plaquemines. Either way, it sparked a facebook live post about the dispute that inspired at least 96 comments, 35 shares, and 1,500 views in less than 24 hours. For many folks who didn’t attend the event and live in the outer parishes, this facebook post will be their only takeaway.It’s a shame because the boat trip was informative and a great way for people to see what newly built land looks like. We took seven small boats, each holding 6-10 people. I was on a boat full of skeptics, much to the surprise of the designated CPRA spokesperson onboard. I felt bad that he had unwittingly drawn the short straw and had to handle all of the rabble rousers, including some questions from even the captain of our boat whom everyone had presumed to be on the diversion sales team payroll. But our CPRA host did a great job, all things considered, and I felt like the conversations on my boat where probably more interesting and spirited than those who were just there for a free boat ride and some BBQ. I felt that my healthy skepticism was somewhat abated by hearing some genuine disagreement. Captain Ryan Lambert, who was overall leader of the boat brigade, was a wealth of knowledge about marsh vegetation like duck potatoes and willows. He explained how those plants make up the waves of succession when land is being rebuilt. A true believer who is also a local, he’s the ideal spokesperson to inspire a bunch of city folks like me from New Orleans.Back on our small boat, we talked about the dangers of doing nothing, the history of the region, who caused the land loss (oil companies), who got rich off the land loss (oil companies), and who should pay for the land loss (oil companies). The residents of Plaquemines aren’t stupid and they aren’t in favor of their homes seeking into the ocean. They have a lot of traditional ecological knowledge about the land and water. They want to be listened to and included in the discussion. Yes, they sometimes offer rebuttals to CPRA that don’t seem to be based upon sound science, but CPRA doesn’t always seem to be totally forthcoming with the real doubts and risks associated with these projects either. When we were back on the buses, I sat near the Associate Administrator of Planning and Research of CPRA, who is basically the architect of the sediment diversions. I asked him about what I heard on the boat from the mid-Barataria skeptics who were basically in agreement that what they actually wanted was lots and lots of small-scale diversion projects all along the river. The CPRA rep said they had looked at that option but that you don’t get as much sediment concentration in the diverted water with a small scale project. He said you need large amounts of water to deliver the most effective sediment load. That answer made a lot of sense to me and was backed up by the science folks at my office. GRN has visited a large-scale diversion at West Bay and walked for miles on newly created land placed by the action of the river.But the follow-up question from one of the locals was if the small-scale diversion projects that they are asking for don’t work as well as large-scale projects, why was CPRA taking us on a tour of a small-scale diversion project? The answer from CPRA is that if diversions work on a smaller scale, they will work even better on a larger scale (if the models are correct). It was an interesting conversation and one I wish the entire group had witnessed.On my drive back to New Orleans, I thought a lot about what I had seen and heard. I went back in my mind to the presentation when we first arrived and CPRA’s origin story of the turning point for land loss in Louisiana. They pointed to the Flood Control Act of 1928, which was authorized in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It empowered the Army Corps of Engineers to design and build levees all along the Mississippi River. It kind of stopped the flooding but also halted the rebuilding of wetlands in the delta.Essentially, we large-scale engineered ourselves into a problem even worse than flooding: land loss. Now we are trying to large-scale engineer our way out of it. And we’re putting our faith in large-scale engineering again. I don’t begrudge anyone who is skeptical of doubling down on our attempts to tame the land and the river. While I think using science to develop projects that mimic natural processes is a step in the right direction, we need to be asking ourselves tough questions about what the effects will be. We need to acknowledge the harm (but also the potential long-term benefits) this will have on fishing communities. We need to prepare for that and mitigate the damages to the people. We need to spend some money on structural projects to rebuild land, but we also need to spend some money on helping out the communities who can’t afford to or can’t otherwise relocate. Extractive industries have made billions upon billions of dollars on this land. The least we can do is spend some money on the people who are bearing the consequences. And if we’re going to spend money on educational outreach like the event I just attended, we should make sure that everyone feels welcome at the table. If we’re going to talk about the benefits, let’s be as up front as we can about the risks. Every question needs to be answered as best we can, even if it’s a lengthy, emotional, and painful process.

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