Stephen Chustz’ telephone started ringing off the hook when the Atchafalaya River stage at Butte La Rose dropped to the 4.5-foot level in mid-April.
At that time of the year, the Atchafalaya River’s usually around 15.0 feet, give or take a few feet, and in no hurry to fall, thus giving the Atchafalaya Basin its annual bath from the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee to the East Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee. And usually it stays up until, based on the past 36 years, mid-June or early July.
Commercial fishermen, particularly crawfishermen, and others called Chustz, assistant secretary with the state Department of Natural Resource’s Office of Coastal Management, to voice their complaints about the unseasonably low water a few weeks ago, he said Friday from his Baton Rouge office. Fortunately, the river rose just as inexplicably as it fell and was around 8.0 feet as of Saturday.
But the river’s drop in the spring concerns many people at local, state and regional levels.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a concern for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was instructed by Congress in 2007 to study the Old River Control Structure and have a report ready in 2008. The purpose of the Water Resources Development Act was to come up with suggestions on alternative ways to divert the water there from the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya River.
By law, there is a 70-30 ratio, which sends 30 percent of the Big Muddy into the Atchafalaya River. That’s the way it’s been since 1952.
The Corps, in its infinite wisdom, hasn’t even started the study. Paul Kemp, vice president and director of the Audubon's Gulf Coast Initiative, made not of that Friday when he said the explanation the Corps has given was that it was so important it wasn’t going to start it.
Well, it’s high time — past time, actually — to do something about it and take a close look at the diversion ratio to get more water in the nation’s last great overflow swamp when it’s necessary and less water when it isn’t, Chustz and Kemp said Wednesday at a meeting of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Two days later they still were talking about it.
“It seems there’s not much interest to do it. Every time Congress asks the Corps to do something, it goes into their policy mill,” Kemp said.
Chustz said about the WRDA act, “Certainly, it’s a signal folks want to look at how the structure’s managed. We think varying that ratio would benefit the resource. Hopefully the Corps will move forward.”
The state agency’s assistant secretary and others will meet regularly with the Corps because of that low-water situation in April, which he said was caused mostly by a lack of snow this past winter in the Midwest. When the river goes back down this time, it’ll probably stay down, according to Kemp.
That scenario conjures up bad memories, such as Hurricane Andrew killing all the fish in the overflow swamp when it was about as low as it could get in 1992.
Kemp, who has been going to bat to get this done for some time, pointed out the Old River Control Structure is the only dam in the country controlled the way it has been since the early 1950s.
“It (70-30 ratio) has the virtue of simplicity. But it’s not necessarily the best multiple-use management approach,” he said.
“When it was first enacted, what they were concerned about was the shifting of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya. That’s only an issue during the high river (months). Well, you’ve still got that other 10 or 11 months out of the year when there’s no sand moving in the system (no erosion) and they can be more flexible,” he said.
Eventually, he said, the Corps “could substitute a management plan that all the parties agree on that accomplishes more things in terms of the ecosystem, fisheries, birds and wildlife and, in terms of flood control, they might find they can do a better job on that in some ways, too.
The all-important study could be done during a joint effort about to get under way as the state and the Corps study the river from Old River down to the main stem in an cost-sharing agreement OK’d in 2011. Only thing, it doesn’t include the Atchafalaya River.
Kemp said, “I think most people see it does need to include the Atchafalaya (WRDA). Most things have been modernized since the early ’50s but not this one. It’s remarkable even though everything has changed since 1952” except the 70-30.
The status quo needs to change. The Corps should get its head out of the sand.
DON SHOOPMAN is outdoors editor of The Daily Iberian.