Waterway Restoration Project Targets Salt Water Intrusion, Storm Surge

America's WETLAND Foundation brings private funding to shoreline stabilization.

The America's WETLAND Foundation (AWF) recently announced a partnership of diverse interests to restore four miles of embankment along both sides of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) in Lafourche Parish, LA, bringing private investment to restoration to protect both environmental and economic interests and serving as a new model of cooperation in coastal restoration efforts.

For years, navigable waterways designed to support commerce in South Louisiana have suffered the effects of coastal erosion and the dramatic loss of wetlands that is the most severe on the planet. In areas where embankments have been lost to tidal surge, shoreline creep has led to widening canals, threatening fresh water marshes with salt water intrusion and taking private lands bordering the canals.  

The fear that tidal surge will further disrupt the ecosystem and the protection and environmental services it provides has enabled a unique partnership to form to demonstrate that coastal erosion can be abated along major waterways.

One of the most noted examples of shoreline creep is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) where rapid deterioration of shorelines made the outlet a conduit for tidal surge from storms and severe weather events. MRGO was deemed an imminent threat and was closed in 2009. 

Termed the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) Shoreline Stabilization & Restoration Project, the diverse partners organized by the America's WETLAND Foundation offer the promise of innovative solutions to restore coastal shorelines and marshes. Joined by Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the State of Louisiana, Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, private landowners near Larose, La., energy industry and Louisiana corporate support, the project seeks to demonstrate cost and time efficiencies that, when missing, stand in the way of moving projects forward.

Both traditional and innovative technology are being utilized in the form of low cost bucket dredging and a vegetated, recycled plastic matrix material called Vegetated EcoShield™. Baton Rouge based Martin Ecosystems is providing the new product that allows natural cover of marsh grasses to strengthen shorelines at a fraction of the cost of traditional cement embankments. It represents the cutting edge of the emerging Green Infrastructure revolution. Creating a "living shoreline" will protect and fortify the embankment by promoting vegetative growth that builds habitat for waterfowl, wildlife and aquatic life.

"Over a three-year period and scores of meetings with officials, we knew we had to tackle one of the most important impediments to coastal restoration - shoreline creep along the GIWW," Val Marmillion, managing director of America's WETLAND Foundation, said. "This canal has become a virtual line of demarcation for erosion and wetland loss. It is the elephant in the room," Marmillion said.

For years, disputes over who has responsibility for keeping the GIWW in tact has meant the canal, second in tonnage only to the Mississippi River as a waterway economic engine, has existed in limbo. While it is a contention of both the state of Louisiana and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the other has responsibility, both agree that ensuring the water way is not compromised further by erosion is critical to securing land assets contiguous to the GIWW. Landowners have complained the process for shoring up embankments is cost-prohibitive and has never ending permit requirements that most cannot afford. Environmentalists are alarmed that one of the most productive ecosystems in the world lies adjacent to the canal, a weak thread holding parts of the system in tact and deteriorating rapidly. 

Although funding priorities do not include the GIWW in the state's coastal master plan, the importance of the waterway's viability is not questioned and its restoration is compatible with the plan. This has opened the door for private financing to protect both economic and environmental assets that benefit local communities, the state and the nation.

"This project is a way for the private sector to fund restoration that makes good business sense. It protects energy assets and, at the same time, provides habitat for wildlife and waterfowl, while providing some protection for nearby communities from storm surge," Sidney Coffee, senior advisor to AWF and former CPRA chair, said. "Because the GIWW was created by the federal government to move commerce for the U.S. and most of the land is privately owned, Louisiana has a vested interest in finding solutions to stabilize canal embankments that reduce costs and timelines. This project hits the sweet spot for everyone. We have found that our energy and business sector partners understand that the economy of the coast relies on this waterway and see it as a good fit," Coffee said.

The project involves a four-mile section of GIWW shoreline - one mile on the Gulf facing side and three miles on the north facing side. On the one-mile stretch, the private landowner has invested hundreds of thousands over the years to rebuild a small embankment often lost to tidal surges that allows flow into the GIWW that bumps out the shoreline on the north side of the canal.

The area in question is key to the protection of nearby population centers in Lafourche Parish, habitat for thousands of waterfowl, marine and animal species, critical energy pipeline infrastructure, and viability of a confluence of the GIWW and Bayou Lafourche that serves as a staging area for offshore energy service personnel and supplies and the shrimp industry. Only a few miles from Lake Salvador and the Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve, the area is prime for stabilization and reducing storm surge threats to the greater New Orleans metropolitan area and Jefferson Parish.

"This is a project where the needs of people and wildlife come together, where economic and environmental needs are mirrored," Dale Hall, President and CEO of Ducks Unlimited, said. "Conservation and wetland restoration go hand in hand when habitat is threatened and this project can set in motion innovative techniques and funding to turn back the tide of coastal erosion," Hall said.

Work on the project has already begun, coinciding with the fall planting window required to vegetate the EcoShield™ product. The first mile of the Gulf-side embankment stabilization is estimated to cost $1.2 million, with AWF, Ducks Unlimited, CITGO, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Community Coffee contributing to its completion by January 2016. Additionally, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) recently awarded $250,000 to the Ducks Unlimited/AWF Partnership for the project. For more information, visit the Reports and Resources page on the America's WETLAND Foundation website to see the project overview and project narrative.