Who Runs the Basin?

One of the common questions that i get when i tell people that i work with the Friends of the Atchafalaya is “Who runs the Atchafalaya Basin, anyway?”, as if there is a single person with a magic wand and a trunk full of dollars, making decisions about which areas to mess up and which ones to “save.”

The answer, of course, is incredibly complex, but, hopefully, this document will reveal part of it.

Breaking down the question…

The first part of the question is “What is the Atchafalaya Basin?

Once you decide which part you are talking about, the next question is “Who owns the land?”

And finally, in the specific instance of the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System, the area inside the east and west protection levees, you can begin to list the governmental players, responsibilities, and the relationships among them.

After that discussion comes the one about non-governmental organizations that own, work or represent users of the Basin public or private elements.

And that is just defining the scope of the question. This document, will deal with the government agencies and save the non-governmental players for later.

What is the Atchafalaya Basin?

If we start with the “What?” part of the question, we can address the geology of the Mississippi alluvial plain, created by glacial scouring and then by deposition of sediment carried from far up the middle of North America over at least 6,000 years. The Atchafalaya Basin is a relatively young one and before it existed, the area was part of the sweep of the Mississippi River, with branches from the current Teche/Vermilion channels, all the way to Lake Pontchartrain. After the Mississippi chose the current channel, the Atchafalaya became a minor distributary of the Mississippi and not long after that, human intervention began to control the future of both rivers.

Levee building along the Mississippi altered the natural cycle of flood and topsoil replenishment, even as it allowed cities to thrive and agriculture to be more predictable (although we still didn’t control the weather). The opening and management of navigation channels allowed water to flow in different patterns and sometimes created alternatives that nature could choose over natural ones.

Such was the case with the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi. Captain Henry Shreve and other believers in active river management cleared blockages along the Red and Atchafalaya Rivers and unintentionally offered the Mississippi River a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico than the one flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Within a few decades, it became obvious that the Atchafalaya option for the Big River would require new, more massive control efforts to avoid loss of navigation and the commerce that had grown along the Mississippi River below the Atchafalaya branch. So were born the Old River Control Structures and the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System.

The flood protection system for the lower Mississippi River consists of impressive levees all along the river, plus several spillways (or floodways) in Louisiana that can divert up to half of the maximum flood flow away from the main channel. One is the Bonne Carre Spillway which empties into Lake Pontchartrain, east of the Mississippi Rive, just above New Orleans. The others are the Morganza and West Atchafalaya Spillways, on the west side of the Mississippi River, above Baton Rouge, which both feed into the lower Atchafalaya Spillway. The Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System (ABFS) includes the three spillways (or floodways) on the west side, but the area usually referred to as the “Atchafalaya Basin” when defining the floodways, is the lower Atchafalaya section, from US Highway 190 south to Morgan City and between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. It has several primary inputs from the Old River Control Structures (ORCS) near Simmesport and the lesser used one downriver from Old River, near Morganza.

The Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System has two primary outlets, one through the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City and through the Wax Lake Outlet, to the west. It also has a navigation connection to the Mississippi through a lock structure on the east side of the Basin at Bayou Sorrel, into a branch of the Gulf Intracoastal WaterWay (GIWW), which goes through another lock at Port Allen into the Mississippi.

But it is important to remember that the historic “Atchafalaya Basin” also includes land outside the Atchafalaya Protection levees, some of which is now developed and densely inhabited.

Who owns the land?

Most of the land outside of the levees is private, except for – as in other areas of the State – State Parks, local and state government buildings, and other specific areas designated for public use.

The total area in the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System is about 800,000 acres. Inside the levees, about half of the land is public and the other half is privately owned. Flowage easements, or permissions to flood, have been purchased by the Federal Government on all land in the Floodways. Environmental easements, which control additional aspects of land usage, development, and resource management, have been purchased on about half the land in the Lower Floodway and are authorized for purchase on all of it. Nearly 50,000 acres of land has been purchased from willing sellers over the past three decades, and about 25,000 more acres could be purchased, under current law.

Who are the players?

The US Army Corps of Engineers is charged with management of the Floodway System, but the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, and the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service (formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service) all have some responsibility in the Basin.
The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Transportation and Development, Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Department of Health and Hospitals, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the State Land Office, and the Atchafalaya Levee Board, each are State agencies with some jurisdiction over aspects of human behavior and management of public lands in the Basin.

Other Federal and State agencies can get involved in the Basin under unusual circumstances; for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other Homeland Security Agencies are involved in disaster relief and events involving security issues, as can the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Guard, but these agencies do not have regular responsibilities in the Basin.

And the individual parishes in the Basin provide law enforcement and participate with the Federal and State agencies in public works projects around and inside the floodways.

Finally, there are towns and cities around the Basin which have an interest in Basin activities, even though most do not have incorporated areas inside the Floodways. Simmesport, Melville, Krotz Springs, and Butte La Rose are notable exceptions and all are protected in part by levees as the Basin rushes around them. Morgan City is just outside the protection levees but has a large investment in recreational facilities just outside the Floodway and a huge interest in the operation of the Control Structures because of its proximity to the Atchafalaya River and its minimum height above flood waters. Other communities around the Basin are also at the mercy of the flood control systems because their historic drainage underwent major alterations when the Floodways were created and the levees cut off natural flow.

The Corps of Engineers is directed by Congress to maintain an arbitrary ratio of water flow between the Mississippi, Red, and Atchafalaya Rivers at Old River. The plan calls for the total flow below the structure to consist of 70% down the Mississippi and 30% down the Atchafalaya, unless special arrangements are made to protect developed areas and/or levee structures below Old River. The Corps defines the design specification for the system as the “Project Flood”, in which half of the Mississippi Flow could be diverted through the Floodways to protect areas downriver.

So the day-to-day management of the control structures falls to the Corps of Engineers, as does major levee construction, channel maintenance, and major water management projects. Routine maintenance projects are handled for the State, by the Atchafalaya Levee Board and the Department of Natural Resources.

The Corps also operates the Indian Bayou Recreation Area and takes part in the management of the Sherburne and Atchafalaya Wildlife Refuges and negotiates the Environmental Easements and Federal land purchases inside the Floodways.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead agency for management of wildlife on Federal Lands but the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries manages all wildlife and fishery activity in the State and has a large responsibility in the Floodway. The State agency also enforces game and fishing license laws throughout the State, including the Basin.
The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry provides forest management expertise and supports landowners and State agencies in the maintenance of healthy forests in the Basin.

The Louisiana Office of State Lands manages State-owned land in and outside of the Floodways. The Office of State Parks, in the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, manages several State Parks adjacent to the Floodways, and the management of the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area also resides in the Department, although the Federal Program that supports it is administered by the US Department of the Interior and supported by the National Park Service. The Park Service also manages National Park properties outside of the Floodways but inside the historic Basin.

The Environmental Protection Agency enforces clean air and clean water regulations but delegates much of that responsibility to the State Department of Environmental Quality, which works with the Department of Natural Resources to control resource extraction activities (primarily oil and gas production and delivery) in the Basin. The Department of Health and Hospitals gets involved when human habitation requires disposal of wastes into the waterways, which includes the entire Floodway System at times.

The US Coast Guard is responsible for water safety and works with the local Parish Sheriffs’ offices to deal with public safety activities on the water. The Department of Public Safety and the Department of Transportation are primarily responsible for the roads across and inside the Floodways but can get involved in transportation issues on water under certain conditions.

Who handles the restoration efforts?

It sounds like there are armies of government officials out managing the Basin. If that is the case, why do we hear about the Basin being in bad shape and needing restoration efforts?

Recognition of the value of the Atchafalaya Basin as a natural resource is just now being achieved. For 200 years, the Great Swamp was seen by many as an area that was not useful for human habitation, and so was only made valuable when its resources were extracted. The inherent value of the environment in its natural state as a human life-support system, recreational resource, hurricane buffer, bio-diversity reservoir, and sustainable food source was not fully appreciated until those features began to diminish in value. By the time political forces were marshaled to address the damages, much of the value had been lost.

Today, there are many different approaches to “saving the Basin”, and depending on your point of view, some of the restoration work may seem pointless or even counter-productive, but after many years of neglect and even outright sacrifice of environmental quality for commercial gain, a scientific approach to evaluating the conditions in the Basin and the options for restoration is finally taking shape. An awareness is rising that compromises will have to be made by all parties in order to retain some of the value of the formerly natural area.

Historically, the Atchafalaya Basin was an active and dynamically changing natural feature in the Mississippi Valley. The changes that were made during the conversion to a tightly managed floodway – barricading natural sources and blocking natural drains – accelerated some processes and halted others. We cannot go back to past conditions without endangering many developments that were created under the assumptions that the Floodways would protect them; we cannot put the oil and gas back in the ground to reduce subsidence; we cannot put back the century-old cypress trees that we cut for housing and furniture; we do not have the resources to move all the sediment that the new river channels deposited in Grand Lake.

What we can do now is what we are just starting to do – better manage some aspects of the dynamic system that we have altered. We will never be able to restore the Basin to its former state, but we can make more intelligent decisions about how to balance flood control, transportation, recreation and resource extraction with conservation, water management, habitat regeneration, and ecosystem support.

There are two major agencies visible in Basin restoration but all the government agencies are important, as well as private landowners, non-governmental groups, commercial users, and private citizens. The two lead restoration agencies are the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Atchafalaya Basin Program.
Because of its flood control and transportation responsibilities, the Corps is often caught in its own web of resistance to significant change and must be driven by public demand through the Congress. It is also limited by funding and by strict adherence to rules which were often crafted in good faith, but which now limit correction of errors introduced by poor management practices of the past.

The Atchafalaya Basin Program has recently been redesigned to be more responsive to citizen input and more transparent to public review and so is the most accessible of the government agencies, if not yet the best funded. The approval in late 2010 of a constitutional amendment to retain more of the State resource severance taxes for use in the Basin will eventually provide more funding for State restoration efforts, but public participation will still be the most powerful driver in the restoration process. Your continued input and vigilance, as an individual and through your organizations, will be the best enforcement tools for conservation and/or restoration of the Atchafalaya Basin environment.

The newest of the organizations involved in Atchafalaya Basin conservation efforts is the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area. The Heritage Area is run by a commission of individuals appointed by Parish Presidents in each of the parishes occupying the area around the traditional Atchafalaya Basin and includes people who enjoy, affect and are affected by the conditions of the quasi-natural areas in the Basin. The Atchafalaya Trace Commission, which runs the Heritage Area, was created in the 1990’s to promote a driving tour around the area but developed the idea of creating a heritage area and was able to convince the US Congress to designate the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area in 2006. In 2010, the Commission and staff are writing a management and implementation plan, with substantial public input, that will direct the activities of the Heritage Area in the coming years.

There is still time to comment on the Management Plan and to have your voice heard. So far, the Plan is placing the Heritage Area in the middle of a convergence of cultural and environmental conservation of natural and human resources in the area and may provide a new vehicle for citizens to participate in the effort to “Save the Basin”, however that group of tasks is defined.


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