What Is the Mississippi River’s Mid-Barataria Diversion, and Why Is It So Controversial?

Written by Maxwell Martinson
Updated: January 24, 2023
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The great Mississippi River is a wonder on its own. It stretches from Northern Minnesota, all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico, providing immeasurable nourishment to life along the way. Its contribution doesn’t just feed the flora and fauna of the central United States, though.

The position and influence of the river shape the land it comes in contact with as well. One area that’s deeply affected by the Mississippi’s flowage is the existing land in and around the Mississippi Delta on the outskirts of Louisiana.

The tributaries that feed the Mississippi stretch from the Northern range of Glacier National Park, all the way east through the Great Smoky Mountains and into the southeastern corner of New York State. As that water makes its way home toward the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico, it collects sediment that builds up at the mouth of the delta.

The result is a stretch of marshy land of about 12,000 square kilometers.

That land is home to a few small communities who are now facing a serious threat to their livelihood, both financially and physically. Their lived experience hangs in the balance of deliberations about the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, which we’ll unpack below.

Mississippi Delta

This photo of the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana seen from space in 2017 clearly shows sediment washing into the Gulf of Mexico.


What’s Happening to the Mississippi River Delta?

First, let’s look at what’s happening to the river delta.

Note that the delta needs those outsourced sediments to collect in order to maintain its structural integrity. Without sediment from tributaries throughout the greater United States, the Mississippi Delta slowly washes away into the Gulf of Mexico.

Waters rise, land diminishes, and the people living on that land gradually lose the place they call home. The issue is already occurring, and numerous ponds, streams, and other geographical landmarks have been removed from government maps due to this flooding.

But why?

Sediment is Lost to Levees

The sediment otherwise needed in the delta is getting caught up in the expansive, pieced-together levee system that started small in 1718 and grew thousands of kilometers over the centuries. The levee system was a matter of necessity for early settlers if they wanted to form cities around the Mississippi Delta.

While this was something that Native American peoples had managed to work around for thousands of years without issue, the settlers set a precedent that would expand without much thought until the mid-1950s.

The Balance of Levee Systems

Sediment from tributaries poses a threat to the people working and living around any area of the lower Mississippi River. As it builds up, sediment forms different channels, bars, and other natural rifts that direct and alter the flow of the river.

Naturally, a river as large and powerful as the Mississippi could alter the habitat of millions of people if it were left to shift and expand in response to the ever-changing sediment along its bed.

The levee restricts sediment as well as water from leaving the confines that people deem acceptable. The difficulty is that those confines also prevent rain and snow water from distributing evenly into the land and waterbed, instead causing massive spikes in water levels that result in floods.

Many towns have suffered from floods that wouldn’t have occurred if levees weren’t in place. So, there’s a sort of catch-22 for humans; either we restrict the waters of the mighty Mississippi and attempt to deal with the environmental consequences, or we let it flow naturally and live our lives around it.

The Shrinking Coastline

It was around the 1950s that the ocean was measured creeping inland at a rate of around 60 feet per year. The levees, along with disruption caused by oil rigs and pipelines, were blamed for the issue but disputes about property lines and the severity of the changes put the matter into gridlock and nothing was done.

It was only in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that significant government interest was given. The missing land from the delta could have dissuaded some of Katrina’s violent stormwaters, preventing significant damage, displacement of people, and financial loss.

This illuminated the dangers of letting the basin loose much more ground.

Then, in 2006, the United States government asked the community of Plaquemines Parish (those living in the area most affected by the loss of land) to relocate. They declined.

What’s the Current Situation?

Now, a complex web of government oversight, public opinion, and scientific research is at play.

The issue is whether or not to redirect Mississippi waters through a channel that would distribute sediment out into the vanishing coastline. There’s evidence to suggest that redirecting waters and altering levees could, in fact, return a great deal of the land that was once lost.

That said, not all locals are in favor of the diversion. Many favor the idea and would like to see the land returned, but there’s a small number who don’t. There are also agents involved that would take a serious financial loss from the sediment diversion program, and those agents are actively running media campaigns to change public opinion about it.

What Is the Mid-Barataria Diversion Plan?

Simply removing levees at this point would cause a serious amount of flooding, causing the people living in the delta to lose their homes. The solution laid out in the Mid-Barataria Diversion plan is to divert water and sediment from the Mississippi through a 2.5-mile channel that leads to the delta basin.

The channel would open at strategic times throughout the year, only diverting water when the sediment levels are highest. This would re-establish wetlands and land that was previously lost.

What’s So Controversial?

According to mississippiriverdelta.org, Louisianans support sediment diversion at a rate “at or above 74% in every region and among every demographic.” Those individuals are up against the State’s Lieutenant Governor, William H Nungesser, as well as individuals from the fishing and real estate industries.

The actual Governor, John Bel Edwards, supports diversion.

It seems like science-backed plans to restore habitat and natural coastline should be naturally accepted by everyone. After all, these plans will benefit the people and restore the wildlife habitat that once flourished in the Mississippi Delta, right?

Two Opposing Sides

The answers to these questions are where the waters get a little muddier because the two opposing sides of this argument have two very different answers.

On the one hand, supporters of diversion say that reestablishing the land will protect communities in the river delta and prevent further land loss from erasing the area off of the map for good. Further, each mile of restored coastline is expected to reduce floodwaters by one foot in the likely event of hurricanes.

Those against diversion say that the plan will do very little, aside from ruining the fishing industry, erasing local individuals’ livelihoods, and effectively slaughtering the local population of bottlenose dolphins.

Yep. You read that right.

The Primary Issues Facing Sediment Diversion

The dolphins strike a chord with a lot of people, especially considering that they’re one of the most beloved inhabitants of that coastline, and there are very few left. This protected species is one of the hotbed topics in the overarching issue of redistribution, but will they really suffer if sediment is shifted back where it was going anyway?

Is there any evidence to suggest that dolphins will be harmed or is it just a political angle used by those trying to prevent the project from moving forward? Further, will local fishermen suffer, and how will the fishing industry at large be affected by this plan?

Here are the facts on each of the hot-button issues pushing and pulling public opinion, effectively delaying the project.

The Impact on Fisherman

There’s concern that the disruption of the existing wetlands will damage Louisiana’s fishing industry. This claim is true, at least for the short term.

The diversion would change the level of salinity in the wetlands, affecting various fish in the area. The wetlands are largely freshwater and provide a habitat for freshwater fish and the animals who eat them.

As the coast recedes, saltwater fish and crustaceans like shrimp move closer inland, which is a good thing for the industries and individuals who make a living off of them. Diverting sediment and extending the freshwater basin would effectively drive small shrimp businesses out of business.

Alternatively, diversion would restore a healthy habitat for countless other species of fish and animals who would no doubt repopulate the area. There would certainly be a loss for coastal fishing, but there would be a corresponding gain.

bottlenose dolphin jumping out of the water

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project would dilute the Mississippi Delta’s salinity, killing 25% or more of the bottlenose dolphins.

©Tory Kallman/Shutterstock.com

Dolphin Habitat

As we noted in the previous section, the loss of freshwater marshes has led to encroachment of saltwater areas now occupied by animals that require saltwater.

One of the animals who now call the Mississippi Delta home is the bottlenose dolphin. This is a beautiful animal that’s protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the area surrounding the diversion program, there are only about 2,000 individual bottlenose dolphins.

This small population took a large hit in the wake of Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that took place in 2010. The population is rebuilding and is expected to establish a healthy rate of growth in the coming decades.

That is unless the Mid-Barataria Diversion Program proceeds. The reduction in salinity could reduce the dolphin population by 25%, or even more in some cases.

This is unacceptable to many individuals and organizations around the area. Some organizations like the Animal Welfare Institute even claim the Diversion Project team has dodged regulations that would otherwise prevent it from working in the habitat of protected animals.

The Impact on Wildlife

Expanding coastal wetlands would be a very good thing for many species. The local dolphin population would diminish significantly, but there are millions of migratory birds, species of fish, amphibians, mammals, and species of plants that would flourish if the land were to return.

Those species would all play a role in the structural integrity of the Gulf’s ecosystem, both geographically and biologically. Reestablishing the coastline would strengthen the habitat and its defenses against massive storms.

Tropical storms not only damage human settlements, but they lay waste to coastal life. It’s normal for those habitats to come into contact with severe storms, but the reduction in coastline puts many species in a vulnerable position that they wouldn’t experience if there were sediment to fill out the coastline.

So, the diversion program would certainly help to reestablish a healthy ecosystem.

Significant Flooding

The program would redirect water into the Barataria Basin. In doing so, sediment will enter the area and extend the coastline. Before that happens, though, there are numerous communities that would be negatively affected by the additional water coming through the channel.

The people in the aforementioned Plaquemines Parish are among those who would have their livelihoods affected by the floodwaters. What’s more, is that the diversion program intends to reestablish the coastline over a number of decades, so the flooding wouldn’t go anywhere for a long time.

That means the people of these small communities either have to leave or figure out a way to adjust their lives to an area with a much higher water level, at least when the channel is open and pumping water their way.

So, What Will Happen?

The project still hasn’t started in July of 2022, and it’s hard to say whether it ever will. There are serious pros and cons on each side of the project, and all of them affect the livelihood of something or somebody.

The looming reality, though, is that Louisiana’s coastline will eventually recede into nothingness and swallow much of the state if nothing is done. So, something needs to happen before that ruins the lives of millions and millions of people, not to mention the corresponding damage to the southern ecosystem.

At the same time, it’s difficult to justify a project that displaces human beings and diminishes the population of a struggling population of dolphins. If you’re someone who cares deeply about this issue, the best you can do now is to stay up-to-date, reach out to political officials, and spread the word about what is happening.

As far as what will end up happening in the Mississippi Delta, though, it’s very difficult to know.

Want to Learn More About Environmental Issues?

The photo featured at the top of this post is © EyeTravel/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Hi! I'm Max and I'm a writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I've been freelancing for more than five years and love the freedom and variety that this profession offers. Animals are also a big part of my life, and a lot of my time is dedicated to playing with my cat, Herbie.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion?

The Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion is a plan to divert sediment and water from the Mississippi through a channel that would release it into the water, expanding the coastline of the Mississippi Delta.

What is a Freshwater Diversion?

A freshwater diversion re-routes river water through a channel, sending it out into an area where it wouldn’t otherwise go. In the case of this freshwater diversion, the saltwater coastline’s habitat would be deeply impacted.

What’s happening to the Louisiana coastline?

The coastline is shrinking at the rate of around one football field per hour. This is happening because sediment caught in levees along the Mississippi isn’t able to make it downstream to fill out the land of the Mississippi Delta.

That, along with rising sea waters, has allowed the Gulf waters to encroach on the land and swallow a good deal of Louisiana.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

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  2. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion: Fact vs. Fiction, Available here: https://mississippiriverdelta.org/the-mid-barataria-sediment-diversion-fact-vs-fiction/
  3. Louisiana Coastal Issues Poll 2021, Available here: https://mississippiriverdelta.org/files/2021/08/EDF-LA-Coastal-Sediment-Survey-Analysis-August-2021.pdf
  4. LOUISIANA LT. GOVERNOR OPPOSES BARATARIA SEDIMENT DIVERSION, Available here: https://thefishingwire.com/louisiana-lt-governor-opposes-barataria-sediment-diversion/
  5. Mississippi River Mid-Basin Sediment Diversion Program, Available here: https://coastal.la.gov/our-work/key-initiatives/diversion-program/about-sediment-diversions/
  6. John Bel Edwards: We need the Mid-Barataria diversion to help save our coast, Available here: https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/opinion/article_69f20622-c2f8-11eb-8551-4789c5f16bae.html
  7. WILDLIFE, HABITAT, SEAFOOD, Available here: https://www.crcl.org/wildlife-habitat-seafood/
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  9. Section 2.3: The Mississippi River Levee System, Available here: https://www.cherscience.org/coastal-land-loss-primer/coastal-land-loss-in-southeast-louisiana/section-2-3-the-mississippi-river-levee-system
  10. Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them, Available here: https://www.npr.org/2018/05/21/610945127/levees-make-mississippi-river-floods-worse-but-we-keep-building-them
  11. How Will Sediment Diversions Impact Fisheries?, Available here: https://mississippiriverdelta.org/will-sediment-diversions-impact-fisheries/
  12. Sediment Diversion Plan Puts Dolphins in Danger, Available here: https://awionline.org/awi-quarterly/fall-2021/sediment-diversion-plan-puts-dolphins-danger