•Local crawfishermen who make their living in the rich annual flood of the Atchafayala Basin, and
•The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which arguably has overseen the premature deterioration of the largest freshwater swamp in the United States.
The face-off occurred Monday in the meeting chamber of the Parish Council, with representatives of the Corps and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the state’s guardian of the Basin, sitting on the dais of power, and the crawfishermen in T-shirts and ball caps down in the seating meant for people seeking favors from, or whose oxen are being gored, by Parish Government.
In the end there didn’t seem to be much of a change in attitudes. The crawfishermen still do not trust the engineers, and the engineers still do not respect the empirical knowledge of the fishermen.
But Landry, who has had well-publicized jousts with the Corps on higher levels, succeeded in orchestrating two baby steps toward a very distant and indistinct solution to an ecological disaster:
•The Corps, DNR and the crawfishermen are going to try to agree on an optimum depth for Bayou LaRose, a choked-off waterway just east of Catahoula. How that will be accomplished was left on the table. Suggestions included consulting the field notes of 19th century surveyors, using 21st century laser imaging, or simply taking core samples and separating river silt from bed clay.
•That done, the groups will have a “pre-application” meeting to determine what regulatory obstacles might loom.
After that, Landry promised to step back in and facilitate progress toward making the project a reality.
It was a nice balancing act for a freshman congressman who in his short career has made a mark as a vocal adversary to the Washington establishment. He was conciliatory to the engineers and at times had to rein in the fiery spokesman for the fishermen, Mike Bienvenu.
“I’m trying to find the times where we do agree,” he said.
At stake is a million dollars sitting in a Baton Rouge bank earmarked for the – or some – project, and the crawfishermen’s long-held and long-scoffed contention that simply opening up natural bayous will improve water quality in the Basin.
It would be difficult now to find someone with standing to disagree that creating east-west levees in the form of spoil banks for pipelines or location canals – which was done under the permitting aegis of the Corps – is the primary cause of siltation and stagnant water in the Basin. But the crawfishermen’s solution to it, to simply remove the spoil from across the bayous and let them flow again, was for years derided or ignored by both the Corps and DNR through the Atchafalaya Basin Program.
Bayou LaRose is meant as a pilot project to prove their theory at last.
The failure of a project off the Corps’ drawing board, Bayou Eugene, where a “sand trap” and lateral cuts caused the bayou to silt in rather than open up, helped to lead to this uneasy détante.
But the main catalyst was Landry, who had the power to fill the dais with federal and state functionaries. Kudos also belong to state Sen. Fred Mills, who early-on encouraged the DNR to focus on Bayou LaRose as a test of the crawfishermen’s solution.
Yet another reason for the change in attitude was the appointment of St. Martin native Scott Angelle to head of DNR. Angelle quietly redirected the ABP’s focus away from peripheral projects like St. Martinville’s Duchamp Opera House and toward water quality issues within the levees, and he entreated his people to not dismiss the crawfishermen out of hand.
Parish President Guy Cormier has offered to undertake the actual dredging operations as a drainage project. In-kind work is of vital importance since it is generally agreed that a million dollars is not enough to engineer and contract out the dredging of Bayou LaRose – that narrow waterway that springs off of the Atchafalaya River at Butte LaRose – all the way down into Cocodrie Swamp.
However, it’s unclear if the parish will be allowed to do the work since state law, written at the behest of the general contractors’ lobby, prohibits government bodies from doing their own contracting above a certain dollar amount.
Another potential obstacle, which sometimes impedes even straightforward drainage projects, is the requirement for a drainage easement from property owners – or in the Basin where the boundaries between private land and state water-bottoms are indistinct, property claimants.
But perhaps the most galling impediment, or cost factor, is the need to do environmental remediation on work designed to improve the environment. A significant cost of the project as it stands is paying a private landowner to plant trees at some distant location to mitigate or make up for the damage of spreading spoil from the bayou along its banks.
This is a sore spot with Landry.
“Anything we do in the Basin to improve water quality, we should get a credit, not a penalty,” he told the engineers. “I’m tired of taking public money and throwing it on private land.”
Pete Serio, chief of the Corps regulatory branch at New Orleans, said the rules are part of the Clean Water Act and the Corps is simply tasked with enforcing it for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Landry pledged to seek solutions, whether legislative or administrative, to any legalistic issues in the way of simply opening up Bayou LaRose to its historic north-south flow.
“It’s like eating an elephant,” he said. “You ain’t gonna do it in one bite.”