Largest privately funded marsh restoration project on the Gulf Coast gets underway

By Adam Davis
May 02, 2014

By Adam Davis, EIP | May 2, 2014

The Chef Menteur property comprises about sixty three percent of the East Orleans Land Bridge, which rises just to the east of New Orleans above the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. This private property, of about 16,500 acres, was owned by CSX and then another private owner before being acquired by Ecosystem Investment Partners in 2012. The property had been ‘hammered’, as they say in the Gulf, by Huricane Katrina, and was badly eroded due to forces that are harming all of coastal Louisiana: exposure to wave action and canals cut through the marsh. As David Urban, EIP’s Director of Operations, put it, “From the air you can really see the pockets of open water inside the marsh that are formed as the land subsides… Like holes in a Swiss cheese.”

Above: A marsh buggy spreads dredge spoil in an open water area of degraded marsh at the Chef Menteur Property.

Today, however, two huge dredges are working just offshore from Chef Menteur Pass, pumping some 3 million yards of material from the bottom of Lake Borgne back into 487 acres of those open water holes–literally reversing the effect of erosion and subsidence. While no solution on the dynamic Gulf Coast can fairly be called permanent, this large-scale restoration activity can buy precious time for Lake Pontchartrain and its communities by creating healthy marsh–that provides critical functions like absorbing flood waters, storm surge and wave energy–and will lead to increased stability for the entire East Orleans Land Bridge. This additional time is critical as other long-term efforts, like those likely to follow from the Restore Act, require complex and coordinated action to get underway.

Above: A dredge boat piping slurry into degraded marsh areas where it will settle and re-vegetate with native marsh grasses.

So what allows a private equity fund manager to invest in coastal restoration? The innovative program known as mitigation banking, which sets a rigorous standard for restoration–including permanent conservation of land, specific ecological success criteria, and financial assurance–but rewards restoration that meets that standard by recognizing the result as a legitimate source of compliance with Clean Water Act requirements. The Chef Menteur property was approved by the Army Corps, EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as a mitigation bank in 2008. This means that other projects in the same region of the Gulf Coast with unavoidable impacts to marsh from levee construction, new transmission lines, roads or other infrastructure can purchase credits from the Chef Menteur site instead of trying to plan, permit and execute a restoration project on their own.

EIP ran a pilot project on the site last year, restoring 68 acres of degraded marsh, and the re-vegetated areas already have healtheir grasses and more wildlife usage than the surrounding marsh. The activity now underway is many times the size of that original effort, with the possibility of future additional expansion. Because of concerns about possible interference with the breeding and spawning habitat of the Gulf sturgeon, construction must be complete by October 31st of this year, and thus the dredges are operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to meet that deadline. Thirty full time jobs working on the restoration are part of the story here, and the skills of the employees of Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel and their subcontractors Wilco and Magnolia Dredging are on display as they set in place over a mile of continuously welded steel pipe to convey the dredge material to the degraded open water areas. Berms are constructed around the areas targeted for restoration, and the slurry consisting of mud and water is pumped at up to 200 lbs/inch of pressure to a level about a foot and a half above the grade of the existing marsh, where it will settle over the coming year.

Above: Excavators crossing the marsh to the construction site.

Because of its location, there are few properties on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana with more strategic value from an ecological and storm risk reduction perspective than the Chef Menteur property. The kind of restoration now underway is highlighted as a priority in Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan and its habitat value is widely documented. Because of the support and encouragement from federal and state regulatory agencies, and the innovations in the Clean Water Act that align private incentives with public priorities, the investment capital managed by EIP is at work today for the people of the New Orleans area and the health of the regional ecosystem.

Above: Dredge spoil being pumped into an open water area of degraded marsh.

To view the location and learn more about the Chef Menteur Pass Wetland Mitigation Bank, click here.