After years of official eye-rolling, scoffing, and even chiding, it appears that the State of Louisiana is conceding that local commercial fishermen might know a thing or two about the hydrology of the Atchafalaya Basin.
With the considerable help of state Sen. Fred Mills Jr. and state Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin, Mike Bienvenu and Jody Meche, president and vice president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association - West, all but hijacked the Atchafalaya Basin Program’s annual planning program and redirected it where they have been wanting to go all along: opening up the natural bayous.
At the close of a nearly four-hour hearing in St. Martinville Aug. 17, all sides had agreed to “laser-focus,” as Mills put it, on opening from top to bottom and down to its historic depth one bayou as a model project, possibly Bayou La Rose in the Cocodrie Swamp area east of Catahoula.
Mills vowed to call all stakeholders, including and maybe even especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, into a meeting to address the issues of opening up one natural bayou choked to insignificance by channelization and the spoil banks of pipeline and well location canals.
“We need to choose one bayou and laser-focus on opening it up,” Mills said. “We need to hit one home run” which could serve as a model for future projects, he said.
ABP acting director Stephen Chustz suggested the Cocodrie Swamp Project, for which $1 million in funding is authorized for this fiscal year.
“We shouldn’t be spending taxpayers’ money to unplug these bayous,” said Bienvenu, noting that the standard permit issued by the Corps of Engineers for dredging states that the permit-holder must bear the cost of re-opening navigable waterways impacted by the project.
Bienvenu said the job could be done with the type of excavator used by Parish Government to clean out drainage canals along with compact track loaders to remove the spoil.
“I could open up five or 10 bayous with a million dollars,” he said.
St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier pledged his support to what he called the “perfect project” to test the fishermen’s theory.
Jones, who represents lower St. Martin Parish, said there also needs to be an examination of how the Corps enforces its dredging permits.
Earlier, Meche, who is also a member of the Henderson Town Council, expressed his frustration at the Corps apparently issuing an after-the-fact permit to a private company to lay a permanent road across Brown Bayou, in the Bayou Des Glaises unit. Originally an access road to a well that went dry, the road now sprouts hunting camps, said Meche. Plugged with culverts, dirt and shell, the bayou no longer carries its traditional flow and navigation into the swamps via the bayou has been curtailed.
Another natural waterway to the north, Bristow Bayou, is on the verge of being similarly plugged up, Meche said.
“Why do we have to follow the rules and (oil companies) don’t?” Meche demanded.
The atmosphere at last week’s hearing was vastly different from those days when the Atchafalaya Basin Program was laden with money, much of it federal, which then-director Sandra Thompson funneled into tourism projects like the Duchamp Opera House and Uncle Dick Davis RV park instead of water management projects. These annual project review meetings back then were crowed with happy local officials who, for the most part, did not welcome the intrusion of the crawfishermen crying for better water quality.
Even when water quality came into vogue, the simplistic concept of simply reopening old bayous was pooh-poohed by the administrators and engineers alike as hopelessly archaic. Meanwhile some of the projects designed to take the place of natural bayous have tended to fill the swamps with sediment instead of flushing them out with floodwater.
Since becoming secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, St. Martin’s own Scott Angelle has placed a high priority on water management projects and early-on sought the advice of the fishermen in how to proceed.
Another factor in the fishermen’s new-found gravitas has been their political clout, which they sometimes wield like a maul.
“I can get 10,000 votes,” Bienvenu warned. “Ask (former state Sen.) Craig Romero and (former Sheriff) Charles Fuselier what I can do.”
There are still plenty of non-water-management projects on the ABP’s list, like the Catahoula community center, parks in Belle River and Stephensville, and Morgan City’s Lake End Park, but money is a lot tighter nowadays and the emphasis has definitely shifted toward keeping the Basin a healthy habitat for its native species.