Coast leaders file federal lawsuit to change procedures for future spillway openings

Coast leaders file federal lawsuit to change procedures for future spillway openings
Ten-trillion gallons. That?s how much freshwater is estimated to have flowed into the Mississippi Sound as a result of the Bonnet Carre Spillway being open this summer.

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - Leaders from across the Mississippi Coast have filed a federal lawsuit, seeking changes to procedures in future openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway.

Marlin Ladner, president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, announced Thursday that officials filed the lawsuit to compel the Mississippi River Commission to consult with the people of the Mississippi Coast before opening the Bonnet Carré Spillway again and to require the Corps of Engineers to seek alternatives to opening the spillway.

In the spring and summer of 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission opened the Bonnet Carré spillway element of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, releasing copious amounts of freshwater through the Lake Pontchartrain Basin and into the Mississippi Sound, wreaking havoc on the natural resources, communities and businesses on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“Our whole Coastal way of life is threatened by continued openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway," said Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich. "We respectfully appeal to the Corps and the River Commission to create reasonable alternatives to opening the Bonnet Carré. We all need a win-win solution for Mississippi and Louisiana to avoid flooding without killing the Mississippi Sound.”

The economic damage to coastal fishing communities, local governments, and tourism-related businesses is still not fully known, but the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has estimated the financial impacts to fisheries alone as over $160 million.

“The members of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United want to be recorded in history as having fought to defend the environment and marine life in our Mississippi Sound,” said Ryan Radley, a fifth-generation fisherman and executive director of Mississippi Coast Fisheries United.

Multiple oyster reefs in the western Mississippi Sound were wiped out. Shrimp and fish were driven out of seasonal habitats. Bottom-dwelling sea life was affected in hundreds of square miles of water bottoms, including commercially valuable species such as crab. Bottlenose dolphin and endangered sea turtle corpses washed ashore in numbers not seen since the BP oil spill of 2010. These impacts hit fishermen hard but also spread throughout the businesses dependent on the seafood industry.

The river water released through the Bonnet Carré Spillway contained nitrate and phosphorus, causing algae blooms through the area. Contact with Gulf waters all along the Mississippi Coast was prohibited for months at a time. Beaches closed and families abandoned their summer vacations, causing tourism-related businesses to lose revenue. Local governments lost tax revenues and incurred uncompensated expenses as a result.

“The beach closures and negative publicity associated with the opening of the Bonnet Carré cost Coast tourism millions of dollars," said Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

The economic damage to coastal fishing communities, local governments, and tourism-related businesses is still not fully known, but the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has estimated the financial impacts to fisheries alone as over $160 million.

In September 2019 the U.S. Department of Commerce granted Gov. Phil Bryant’s petition for a fisheries disaster declaration. The long-term impacts on Mississippi’s coastal resources are not fully known but will likely cost hundreds of millions more.

In its first 70 years of existence, the Bonnet Carré Spillway has opened a total of eight times. Since 2008, the spillway has been opened six times. In 2018 and 2019, the spillway opening in consecutive years for the first time. In 2019, the spillway for the first time opened twice in a single year, for a total of 123 days - almost twice as long as any previous opening.

The lawsuit was filed by the Boards of Supervisors of Harrison and Hancock counties; the cities of Biloxi, D’Iberville, and Waveland; the Mississipi Coast Fisheries United, and the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

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