Mississippi River’s newest distributary in danger of being closed

from Wildlife Promise

A river otter enjoys new habitat formed by the Mississippi River’s newest outlet in Louisiana, Mardi Gras Pass.

Last year during Mardi Gras, the Mississippi River carved a small outlet through its bank and found a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico.This was the river’s way of naturally reconnecting with its surrounding wetlands — a natural delta process that we rarely see today because of levees, but which is still possible in this area known as the Bohemia Spillway.

Shortly after this took place, river otters, beavers, fish, birds and other wildlife began making this small outlet — dubbed Mardi Gras Pass — their home. State and federal regulators are deciding whether or not to issue a permit that would allow a company to rebuild a road washed away when the pass formed. The road fill, with four culverts, would choke off the flow of the pass and interrupt the re-establishment of natural processes. This would destroy wildlife habitat. Before a permit is granted to fill Mardi Gras Pass, responsible authorities should conduct a comprehensive environmental analysis.

The current plan to rebuild the road will effectively close the pass and eliminate encouraging ecological benefits that scientists have been monitoring since the channel’s development. NWF is calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Louisiana to conduct a comprehensive assessment and carefully consider all of the benefits of the pass before granting any permit that would close the pass and destroy wildlife habitat.

The State of Louisiana is holding a public hearing on Wednesday, March 20 at 6 pm in the Belle Chasse Auditorium. NWF and its partners in coastal restoration will be there to show strong support for keeping Mardi Gras Pass open and letting the Mississippi River naturally reconnect with its wetlands, providing river otters and other wildlife with new habitat.

Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are important for many species of wildlife including river otters, pelicans, and alligators—and can provide critical hurricane protection for Louisiana’s coastal residents. But these wetlands—otter habitat and so much more—are eroding into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of a football field every hour. Louisiana’s groundbreaking new plan to restore its vanishing coast includes river-reintroduction projects—something very similar to Mardi Gras Pass—that allow the river to naturally flow to its wetlands.

Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost almost 2,000 square miles of coastal wetlands and barrier islands. Before the levees to control flooding were placed along the Mississippi, the natural creation of small outlets like Mardi Gras Pass was fairly commonplace.

Keeping Mardi Gras Pass open is important—it’s a chance for the river to reconnect with its wetlands, which is exactly what the river is designed to do.