Fall Fishing in the West Bay Diversion
There may be no better place in the entire world to catch fish in the fall than the mouth of the Mississippi. The river is low, the water is green and saltier and the cooler weather pushes redfish, speckled trout, flounder and sometimes even sea-run striped bass into passes, sand bars, rock jetties and spillways up and down lower Plaquemines Parish.
In the last few years, one of the go-to hotspots for early fall redfish and flounder and late-fall speckled trout has been the West Bay diversion, located between Venice and Head of Passes.
Mark Fisher of WileyX Sunglasses with Lew Carpenter of Vanishing Paradise in the West Bay Diversion
The diversion, built by a federal and state coastal restoration program called the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), is simply a cut in the river’s bank designed to move sediment-laden water out of the main channel to build land in the adjacent, relatively shallow, open waters of West Bay.
That water movement and newly-formed habitat has attracted fish and fishermen for at least the last five Octobers and Novembers. For a while, it appeared October and November 2012 would be West Bay’s last fall.
The agencies controlling CWPPRA decided, due to of a variety of complications, fiscal limitations, geographic and geologic reasons and bad agreements, that West Bay needed to be closed in 2013. Vanishing Paradise, Louisiana Wildlife Federation and conservation organizations across the country argued vehemently against that decision and lobbied to have it overturned.
Thankfully for those who have watched the diversion become a fishing hot spot and, more importantly build several acres of land in the last four years, CWPPRA listened to the pleas of conservation organizations and the decision to close the West Bay project was reversed October 11, 2012.
Four years ago, CWPPRA was forced to spend millions on dredging because of an agreement signed more than a decade ago by the State of Louisiana and the Army Corps of Engineers. The agreement basically made the CWPPRA program responsible for paying dredging costs for any “induced shoaling” in the Mississippi River caused by the diversion. Induced shoaling is a more technical way of saying the diversion causes sediment to pile up in the river.
Shoaling caused by West Bay is particularly troubling to riverboat pilots because of impacts to an area known as the Pilottown Anchorage, which is used by deep draft vessels as refuge and safe harbor adjacent to the main navigation channel.
By Congressional rules, the Corps of Engineers cannot dredge an anchorage, only the main channel. The cost to CWPPRA to dredge the anchorage has been in the $10-$20 million range per dredging cycle and there have been two cycles. That’s a lot of money for a program that only gets about $80 million per year to spend on projects across Louisiana’s coast.
Closing it seemed a fiscally prudent, albeit controversial and short-sighted, decision four years ago. The project wasn’t living up to its land-building expectations, thanks in large part to massive erosion caused by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike and the slow geologic process of river delta formation. Riverboat pilots had lost their anchorage and said it was entirely because of the diversion. And CWPPRA was out millions that could have been spent on better performing, less controversial projects.
Then in 2008 and 2011, Mother Nature buried that “prudent” decision in neck-deep mud. Record Mississippi River floods poured millions of tons of sediment through the diversion and into the adjacent bay. With a little help from strategically-placed soil dredged from the anchorage, land began to emerge at West Bay followed shortly by grass and more land.
New land emerges at the West Bay Diversion. Photo by eustatic via Flickr.
Then, two separate examinations of the lower Mississippi conducted by both the state and corps showed the diversion was only responsible for about 20-25 percent of the shoaling in the anchorage. The studies also pointed out the area had been silting in for more than 20 years prior to opening the diversion and would continue even if West Bay was shut down.
The new evidence and what was becoming a nightmarish public relations battle forced CWPPRA to revisit the decision to close the diversion. There was simply no way or reason to destroy one of the few areas in coastal Louisiana that is building rather than losing land.
The decision is being celebrated widely by coastal restoration advocates, state and federal officials and saltwater anglers though it still leaves many unanswered questions about dredging policy along the lower river. It also does little to address complications sure to arise from the opening of other badly-needed sediment diversions all along the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge.
Putting those concerns briefly aside, the decision to leave open West Bay is cause for optimism about the future of coastal restoration in Louisiana. There was a time, not so long ago, when the decision to close West Bay would have never been reversed.
Now, it seems those in charge of making those decisions realize they must be willing to use new information, make adjustments to policies and be much more accommodating to the ecosystem if Louisiana’s coast is to have a fighting chance at restoration.