Stemming the destruction of Louisiana’s coastline is a colossal challenge, but recently the state has found a new way to bring the vast power of the Mississippi River itself to bear on the struggle.

Sediment pipeline projects now underway are tapping the natural land-building dynamics of the mighty river’s flow, mimicking the way sediment was delivered to the region before the Mississippi was channeled by levees. Beginning this month, the new Mississippi River Sediment Delivery System will begin scooping mud from the river and pumping it via pipeline five miles away to rebuild marshland in lower Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.
“This is the first time we have specifically mined sediment from the river to build land outside the river levee,” says Chris Macaluso, spokesman for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “This is the quickest way for us to build new land, period.”

The state says the $28.3 million project will nourish and rebuild nearly 500 acres of marsh that has been decimated by hurricanes and saltwater intrusion. The pipeline will be left in place to fuel other marsh restoration efforts in the future, and similar plans are underway for additional projects along the state’s coast. 

The 2.3 million cubic yards of sediment this current river project is expected to transport, however, is but a small fraction of the material the Army Corps of Engineers digs up each year to keep Louisiana waterways clear for shipping. The state pegs this annual amount at 60 million cubic yards, while private industry removes another three million cubic yards. Presently, most of this material is dumped in out-of-sight areas or into the sea. But the productive land-building potential of all that dredged sediment now has the state campaigning for new rules to require much more of it to be used to rebuild Louisiana’s ravaged coast.

“We want the Corps to get more in line with Louisiana’s needs. This material is being picked up, why not put it down where it’s going to be beneficial for our coast?” says Louis Buatt, assistant secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. “We have no resources to spare in this effort to save the coast. We have to use everything we have the best way we can.”

The state calculates that if all the available sediment dredged from Louisiana waterways was used for coastal restoration, the state could build back more than 18 square miles of land per year, or about two-thirds of the amount now vanishing annually into the Gulf of Mexico.