April 21, 2017 09:20 AM

From 1932 to 2000, nearly 2.5 billion cubic centimeters of sediment have piled up in the Atchafalaya River Basin, as shown here at the base of a cypress tree.
Photo by Dean Wilson

Mere hours before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources questioned the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority about its annual plan on Thursday, it sympathized with the authority’s political opponent, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a non-profit dedicated to restoration of the basin’s ecosystems.

Basinkeeper representative Dean Wilson delivered an emotionally charged presentation to the committee, bemoaning the way in which the authority has realigned sediments into the basin.

And the basin is filling up fast – from 1932 to 2000, it has gained nearly 2.5 billion cubic centimeters of sediment, according to the presentation.

Wilson also related his group’s concern about the CPRA tapping into public funds to build more land in the basin.

“That’s criminal — to use public funds to fill swamps in the Atchafalaya Basin,” Wilson said.

He noted the state spends nearly $600 per acre to restore bird habitats on islands that belong to oil companies, such as with Queen Bess Island.

Supplementing his testimony with “before and after” images of what was once wetland, Wilson revealed an area southwest of Plaquemines Parish where, in one year, a foot-and-a-half of sediment piled up on a crawfish trap.

“These projects are based in a vision with the landowners at the forefront,” Wilson said. But he wasn’t referring to average, run-of-the-mill residents.

He argued that three landowners primarily benefit from the projects — one who has already cut down the trees on “hundreds of acres of swamps that will never regenerate,” another who logged swamps in the basin last fall and a third who Wilson said “is on the record asking for projects to bring sediments so they can harvest their cypress forests.”

“We’re talking multimillionaires here,” Wilson said. “They’re making $150 an acre.”

Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, did not quite buy Wilson’s argument. He said the real issue in areas such as his is that no freshwater is entering the basin.

Since that freshwater isn’t pouring into the basin, Lambert noted, a “floating mat,” which he also referred to as a “blanket of death,” builds up, causing crawfish to die in their traps.

“When that floating mat starts, it chokes out all of the vegetation.”

Wilson argued that mud is part of that area’s natural ecosystem and that his area of concern was north of Gonzales. “You cannot fix it without destroying something else.”

Committee chairman Norby Chabert, R-Houma, empathized with Wilson and promised they would remind the CPRA to be more specific with its plans.

“Why aren’t we seeing a model of the Atchafalaya?” Chabert asked.

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