(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Dec. 3, 2012 issue.)
The feds and the state want to see Bayou Bienvenue in the Crescent City's Lower Ninth Ward restored to the cypress-tupelo swamp it was before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the MRGO shipping channel in 1968. So far, the bayou's comeback has been led by community groups and universities, and it needs more money. The Army Corps has a MRGO ecosystem restoration project that includes the bayou but the state is unwilling to contribute to its costs. At this juncture, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans is the authority that's likely to help the ailing swamp soonest.
On Nov. 27, the Sierra Club, the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and the National Wildlife Federation held a panel discussion on Bayou Bienvenue at All Souls Church on St. Claude Ave. in New Orleans.
Before getting to the details of that meeting, a look at the current situation and recent past explains what's at stake. The bayou, a pond full of dead cypress stumps, has clearly seen better days. Nonetheless, at the moment, "fishing is way good" outside the Bayou Bienvenue Marina and Bait Shop on Paris Road, owner Jimmy Dixon Jr. said last week. "They're pulling in great trout, redfish, flounder, sheep and drum." He said "if the water is freshened, it would put us out of business."
The overall plan, however, is to reduce the water's salinity so that cypress trees and the former swamp ecology can return. John Taylor, bayou ecology historian, said last week he was brought straight to the Lower Ninth after his birth at Charity Hospital in 1947, and has lived next to Bayou Bienvenue most of his life. "It used to be so thick with cypress trees that my brother and I boated it without paddles," he said. "We just grabbed onto trunks and pulled ourselves forward. The water was full of crawfish and cypress trout or mud fish." Before his time, Ninth Warders harvested Spanish moss from trees there for mattresses.
But salt water poured in when the MRGO channel was built, destroying 27,000 acres of wetlands including Bayou Bienvenue. In 2009, the Corps closed MRGO, which had become known as "hurricane alley" for increasing storm surge in New Orleans during Katrina.
Today, Lower Nine residents want their vegetative swamp back for a number of reasons, particularly because it would provide defense against hurricanes and the state's shrinking coastline.
After Katrina, residents and community groups came up with the idea of an observation deck on Bayou Bienvenue, and landscape architecture students and faculty from the University of Colorado at Denver built it in 2009. "We snuck the deck in here without any permits or approvals," Taylor said. "But it's such a popular spot now that it's here to stay." Neighbors, bicyclists, eco-tourists and researchers sit on the deck at Florida and Caffin Avenues, gazing out at the treeless bayou and mulling its potential, he said.
Taylor, who acts as an ad hoc guide at the observation deck, said "we're not turning away tourists here," referring to an issue between Lower Ninth residents and big tour buses. "We have lots of plans for the bayou's recovery but little money. We need all the public awareness, recognition and participation we can get."
At the Nov. 27 meeting, moderator Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club in New Orleans was pleased that a crowd of fifty turned out. The room was so full that some audience members leaned on walls in the back.
Greg Miller, planner with the U.S. Army Corps in New Orleans, was on the panel and said the bayou's recovery is part of a $2.9 billion MRGO Ecosystem Restoration project that's awaiting Congressional appropriation. It needs 35 percent funding from a non-federal sponsor as required by the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. That sponsor could be the state. But so far, no sponsor willing to shoulder 35 percent has been found.
Separately, the state has included Bayou Bienvenue's restoration in its Coastal Master Plan, approved by the legislature last spring. When asked about the Corps' MRGO plan last week, the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority provided several letters sent by its chairman Garret Graves to the Corps over the last two years, outlining why the agency doesn't want to share costs of the project. Graves said since MRGO was a federal navigation channel, the feds have to assume full responsibility for remediating its ecological damages. He noted that the state has already committed over $100 million to restoration and shoreline protection within the region of the Corps' MRGO project. And Graves said in his letters that the area hurt by MRGO was wider than the Corps had estimated.
Meanwhile, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans has a demo project in Bayou Bienvenue that's expected to yield results sooner than the Army Corps project or some of the state's plans.
Madeline Goddard, S&WB's deputy general superintendent and a speaker at the Nov. 27 bayou discussion, said the agency's $65 million Wetlands Assimilation Project stems from an idea within its Environmental Affairs Division and is a partnership between the sewerage board and St. Bernard Parish. Planting of bald cypress and tupelo trees is slated to start in Bayou Bienvenue in March and April, funded by a $10 million grant from the state's Coastal Impact Assistance Program. A $400,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state entity in the Mississippi Delta, paid for the project's feasibility and pre-design studies.
S&WB is using dredge material to raise the bayou's elevation on a 20-acre, demo site adjacent to its East Bank Sewage Treatment Plant on Florida Ave., so that trees can be planted in shallow water.
Last week, Robert Jackson, S&WB spokesman, said tons of bio-solids, or sludge that comes from waste water treatment and is suitable for land applications and food crops, along with tons of incinerated ash will be used in the bayou-elevation process. Treated effluent will be pumped into the bayou, starting in March and April, to control salinity and provide nutrients. A similar effort will be made on the St. Bernard Parish side of the project.
Tree planters have plenty of work to do if the bayou is to return to its former state. The Army Corps' Miller noted that less than a century ago Bayou Bienvenue contained 500 or 600 trees per acre. He ran across that statistic in a 1921 report titled "The Industrial Canal and Inner Harbor of New Orleans," published by the Port of New Orleans.
Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club said university students will make a local presentation about Bayou Bienvenue sometime in December. The Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development site at sustainthenine.org will announce the event's date soon.
Taylor said art inside the bayou early next year will help raise awareness about the need for restoration. An art installation from natural and locally found materials, sponsored by A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans, should be up in January and February.
At the Bayou Bienvenue Marina, Dixon said he's waiting for ecologists to release floating islands, made of plants and recycled plastic and used for restoration, from his launch this winter. end