MRGO Closure: Many benefits since Katrina but more to be done

Following the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent closing of the MRGO shipping channel, the MRGO Must Go Coalition (which LWF is part of) released a report detailing new information about the closure’s benefits and the need that remains for large-scale restoration of the ecosystem.

The MRGO shipping channel was constructed in the 1960s as a 72-mile-long, 36-foot-deep federal navigation channel that provided large vessels a shorter route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. While the original width of the channel was 500 feet, over time, it eroded to a massive 2,500 feet in some areas. Nearby wetlands, which serve as critical protection for coastal communities, were significantly degraded or completely destroyed.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled up the channel with a 26-foot storm surge that devastated parts of St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward as the surge caused overtopping of levees and flood wall failures that claimed the lives of hundreds of people in the area.

Since the MRGO closure, the entire Pontchartrain Basin has seen a restored and balanced hydrology, with salinity gradients closer to the historical conditions of the 1960s, pre-MRGO. As a result, the region will be able to support a wide array of species and habitats such as baldcypress swamp forests and oyster reefs, which also work effectively as lines of defense allowing work to be done to rebuild the vital storm surge buffer on which vulnerable communities rely.

However, progress on small-scale projects such as Bayou la Loutre Ridge, Golden Triangle, New Orleans East Landbridge, Maurepas Swamp, Lake Borgne Landbridge and Biloxi Marsh has just begun.

“Though 15 years have passed since the storm, neither the Lower Ninth Ward, nor St. Bernard Parish, have been able to fully recover. The Lower Ninth Ward, where longstanding issues of systemic inequity continue to exist, is particularly impacted, further compounded by the lingering legacy of MRGO and its destruction of the community,” said National Wildlife Federation Gulf Program Deputy Director and report co-author Amanda Moore. “While the results of the closure on our ecosystem recovery are undeniable, we must keep pushing forward for the restoration that is needed to protect communities.”

Following the devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the MRGO Must Go Coalition formed to advocate for the restoration of the MRGO ecosystem. According to the Coalition’s most recent white paper, “MRGO: The Road to Recovery”,

Remarkably, data shows that the relatively simple navigational closure of the channel is possibly the most beneficial restoration project to date in Louisiana, helping return salinity throughout the Pontchartrain Basin to pre-MRGO ranges.

At the same time, the ecosystem restoration recommended by the Federal government, the state government, conservation organizations, and local communities is far from done. We’ve just begun to make progress on projects like marsh creation, shoreline protection, and ridge restoration for the areas impacted by the MRGO. In fact, no funding has been allocated to implement the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) MRGO ecosystem restoration plan, despite Congressional calls for action after Katrina.

The prioritization of restoration is critical, not only to protect communities with a healthy coastal buffer, but also to allow recovery within communities still reeling from the catastrophe of the Federal shipping channel.

This year’s record-setting hurricane season underscores the fact that the region remains extremely vulnerable to strong storms that have the potential to rapidly intensify and cause widespread damage. There is much work that remains to restore the MRGO ecosystem and provide a vital buffer from storms and sea level rise that can protect our communities for generations to come.

Recently, St. Bernard Parish, along with recreational and commercial fishers made requests to lower parts of the rock dam on the MRGO to allow boats to pass and allow water to flow to the Gulf when the Bonnet Carre Spillway is opened. If a permit application is completed and submitted to the Corps, there will be a public comment period before a decision is made on the request. LWF, along with the 16 other MRGO Must Go Coalition members, will be prepared to respond.

As Arthur Johnson, chief executive officer for the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development put it, “[t]he decisions of local, state and federal policymakers, regarding preserving our natural ecosystems and protecting our communities, has never been more important”. We must keep MRGO closed for the protection of this critical ecosystem and especially for the safety of the surrounding communities.

Read the complete white paper, MRGO: Road to The Road to Recovery

Related: Delta Dispatches podcast episode: Why MRGO Must Stay Gone
John Lopez from Pontchartrain Conservancy, Amanda Moore from National Wildlife Federation, and Arthur Johnson from The Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development break down the new paper – MRGO: Road to Recovery

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