Flowing Water // Opening Waterways

by Kathleen Rodrigue

A $200 million project to reintroduce the Mississippi River into Bayou Lafourche is underway to increase the bayou’s water flow, protecting the region’s drinking water supply, attracting more wildlife and combating saltwater intrusion, officials say.

“We can’t do any restoration projects well without more fresh water flowing into Bayou Lafourche,” says Windell Curole, general manager and executive secretary of the South Lafourche Levee District.

The Bayou Fresh Water District’s project includes dredging more than 29 miles of Bayou Lafourche to make it deeper; building a new $65 million water pump station at the mouth of Bayou Lafourche to pull more water from the Mississippi River; pacing a new water control structure in the bayou near Labadieville; modifying the water control structure in Lockport; and removing the weir, a water flow structure, in Thibodaux, says Ben Malbrough, executive director of the Bayou Fresh Water District.

Over $60 million of the $200 million comes from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The remaining funding comes from other state and federal partners.

Malbrough expects the entire project to be completed before the end of 2019.

The current project to open up the connection between the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche comes after more than a century of blocking the water to help with spring flooding, Malbrough says. The Mississippi river once flowed freely into Bayou Lafourche and was the main channel for commerce for this region, transporting goods to the Mississippi River and then to New Orleans. However, spring flooding was an issue. So to combat the flooding, the mouth of Bayou Lafourche was temporarily closed off from the Mississippi River in the early 1900s. And the temporary ended up becoming permanent, says Malbrough. So from 1902 until 1955, there was little to no fresh water flowing into the bayou from the Mississippi River.

As the area became more populated, the Bayou Fresh Water District was formed in 1952 to provide the water purification facilities along Bayou Lafourche with fresh water. Eventually a pump station was installed at the mouth of Bayou Lafourche in 1955 allowing water to flow into the bayou again. Malbrough says the pump station is currently pumping its maximum water flow of 500 cubic feet per second, or about 3,740 gallons per second. But that is not enough to fix the problems we are facing. So in 2006, a plan was submitted to the Coastal Wetlands Protection and Restoration organization, but the project was not selected as a priority project. Then in 2008, Hurricane Gustav struck the region and turned Bayou Lafourche septic for about 30 days. Malbrough says this experience was the “Aha moment” that something needed to be done. So from there on out, the Bayou Fresh Water District and other supporting groups have been working toward soliciting money from different federal and state organizations to fund the project.

“The problem has been getting worse and worse for years, so this is tremendous progress that took place and being done in a way that really minimizes the concerns of most people,” says Curole, with the South Lafourche Levee District.

Not only will the project help with the environment and water flow, but it will also encourage recreation.

“Everything that the Bayou Fresh Water District is doing will help recreation on the bayou,” says Ryan Perque, executive director of Friends of Bayou Lafourche, a nonprofit that promotes bayou activity and education.

And help with commerce, says Malbrough.

“Us having the ability to control the amount of water and the flow into Bayou Lafourche is critically important, not just for our residents, but for the industries in our region.”