Union Pacific Railroad Crossing of Bayou Lafourche makes major advancement

One of the most critical project components of the Mississippi River Reintroduction into Bayou Lafourche Project (MRRBL) underwent major advancements on Friday when Union Pacific Railroad (UP) shut down rail service through Donaldsonville. The two-day shut down occurred so that the existing tracks could be removed to allow bridge spans to be set into place on piles that have been driven over the last few months.

While the project won't be complete until mid-December, the critical first step is part of a $31 million dollar grant through the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) as part of the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP), which is administered by the Department of Interior. The completion of the UP Crossing at Bayou Lafourche Project will be the culmination of years of effort by multiple agencies and stakeholders to remove what has been recognized as the most significant impediment to the implementation of the MRRBL since its inception over twenty years ago, including Congressman Garrett Graves, who while Chairman of CPRA allocated the original CIAP funds to BLFWD and has played an integral role in progressing this project through to construction while serving in Washington D.C.

According to Lee Melancon, Executive Director of Donaldsonville Downtown Development District, freshwater isn't the only thing the project will bring about for the city.

"This project is part of Donaldsonville's future site creating recreation and economic development of Bayou Lafourche," Melancon said. "On the site we plan to have a small visitor's park where people can kayak or boat and enjoy the bayou for recreation. Our goal is to create economic impact for the community, and most importantly, create jobs for our citizens."

As mandated by the State of Louisiana, The Bayou Lafourche Fresh Water District (BLFWD) provides the only fresh water supply for drinking water to over 300,000 residents and businesses in Ascension, Assumption, Lafourche, and Terrebonne Parishes, as well as a nourishment source for the vanishing wetlands of the Terrebonne and Barataria Basins.

"It's part of the flow of freshwater - the project will essentially be increasing the flow levels, allowing traffic through an area that was previously closed to boat traffic," said Cindi Guion, Friends of Bayou Lafourche Commission. "For us it's two-fold, the Friends of Bayou Lafourche mission is beautification and recreational opportunities. I think this is important to the Donaldsonville community and everybody up and down the bayou that will be able to use the waterway."

Furthermore, Bayou Lafourche is the only source of fresh water used by Port Fourchon and the businesses that reside there, who collectively play a strategic role in furnishing approximately 18 percent of the United States’ entire oil supply. The water supply is part of the critical infrastructure which adds approximately $6 billion to the federal treasury on a yearly basis for leases and royalties.

The critical fresh water supply is being threatened everyday by the encroachment of saltwater as the Gulf of Mexico continues to push more and more water inland. The only true mitigation for the continued encroachment is to increase the fresh water supply into Bayou Lafourche from the Mississippi River.

For Hugh Caffery, Bayou Lafourche Fresh Water District Commission Chairman, the project is the culmination of many years of need coming into fruition.

"We've known about the need for 30 years, but the funding wasn't there," Caffery said. "The stars have aligned for people who depend on this water source for the life and way of life can now get a resilient and robust amount of water. The bridge is key because without we couldn't flow the water - the levee was an impediment - we couldn't move enough water."

The discussions on how to introduce more fresh water from the Mississippi River into Bayou Lafourche began in the late 1980s and continued until 1993, when a conceptual project was proposed in the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Restoration Plan. The conceptual project was refined over the course of the next 16 years until 2006 when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) finalized a report on the MRRBL determining that more than doubling the flow to a minimum of 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) was the most feasible alternative to making this natural resource more resilient. The report detailed the work that has to be undertaken in order to achieve this increased flow, with the major components being a new pump station, dredging of Bayou Lafourche, removal of an existing weir, and opening the flow restriction at the UP crossing. Throughout the development of the report, BLFWD and the State of Louisiana, through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and CPRA, have spent millions of dollars analyzing all possible scenarios to increase the flow capacity of Bayou Lafourche.

"This is a project we've been working on for many years," Mayor Leroy Sullivan said. "More water can flow through this project and at the same time, we are going to take this area and make it a tourist attraction for the City of Donaldsonville."

It was recognized very early on that UP crossing was going to be one of the most difficult hurdles to cross in order for the MRRBL to be fully implemented, and now that step has been taken.