The only Louisianan on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Bill Cassidy tries to keep his state’s agricultural interests at the forefront. That was very clear during an October committee hearing when Dave White, National Resources Conservation Service chief, testified about several conservation initiatives.

Cassidy, who hails from Louisiana’s Sixth District, wanted answers about the state’s rapidly degrading coastline.

“Part of our issue is how to restore, in part, the distribution of the sediment from the Mississippi River to rebuild our vanishing coastline,” said Cassidy to White. “Is (the NRCS’ Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds) Initiative elastic enough so we not only attempt to restrict sediment entering the river but we also think imaginatively about restoring its distribution of sediment?

“By the way, it would help the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico by taking some of that nitrogen phosphorus and (filtering) it through marshes. Does this allow that?

White: “Yes, it does.”

Cassidy continued. “I tour with the Army Corps of Engineers, and if it ever seems the federal government is at cross purposes, it seems in the Mississippi (River), we certainly are. Is there any attempt to coordinate with the Corps as they’re intimately involved with our coastline, to take this program and work with them so it works for restoration as opposed to being just dumped into the gulf?”

White: “We’re going to work with the Interior (Department), the Corps, EPA, whomever.”

“How is that process initiated?” asked Cassidy. Is it “dependent on good-minded people making phone calls?”

White: “The way we’re set up is Louisiana will be pretty much in control of what happens (in the state). So, (what happens) in northern Minnesota will look a lot different than what it looks like in your neck of the woods. …We’ll look for our state conservationists to work with the Corps. I believe they have a pretty good relationship. We spent a good amount of money on hurricane clean-up.”

Cassidy pressed further, asking aside from reassurances “that everyone wants to do the right thing, do we need a formal mechanism in the Mississippi River that the Corps — on an absolute, formal basis — would issue a joint report with you to make sure these projects maximize benefits?”

White: “No, sir. I don’t think we need a directive to that. ‘People working together’ is something Secretary Vilsack wants (from USDA agencies). That applies to other federal agencies, as well.”

Several weeks after that exchange, Cassidy, a Republican, remains insistent that Louisiana is suffering from poor planning that needs to be rethought.

“While we’ve been talking, Louisiana has probably lost around two football fields worth of coastline. It is literally happening that fast. When you go fishing off the coast, your GPS will show all these areas that are theoretically land. But you’re boating right over it. So, we have a tremendous problem in south Louisiana with erosion.”

For more, see Hurricanes take bite out of Louisiana coastline.

There are many reasons for the erosion. Part of it is the natural hydrology has been disrupted. Instead of the Mississippi River distributing through south Louisiana through various bayous, it’s now between levees and goes into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ideally, “you’d allow some of the river to redistribute through the bayous. But a lot of the Mississippi River has very high quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus from the Missouri Valley, on down. That is too much of a nitrogen load to go into the bayous.”

Instead, the load spills into the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting algae bloom “sucks all the oxygen out of the water.” All the fish in the affected zone die or leave. That has led to what’s known as a hypoxic “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

For more, see Hypoxia zone researchers look for answers.

“So, there are a few things going on. One, farmers are losing their land upstream. Second, they have to use more nitrogen and phosphorus to replenish the land. Third, when the (river water) gets to Louisiana, it isn’t allowed to be distributed through the bayous as it normally would. And fourth, it’s causing a dead zone, which hurts the Gulf of Mexico.

“Imagine if we took all that sediment spilling into the Gulf and, instead, either kept it on the farmland from whence it first came or allowed it to distribute through south Louisiana bayous to allow the marshlands to rebuild.”

The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative has the potential to help the situation, says Cassidy.

“Upriver it would allow farmers that want to participate to institute programs to prevent erosion and, perhaps, decrease their cost of fertilizer. In south Louisiana, it could do that same (for farmers).”

While questioning White, Cassidy urged him to “instead of thinking about what’s going into the river, think about how to distribute what’s coming out of the river in a way to rebuild wetlands and help drainage. That way, Louisiana farmers who are subject to flooding because of poor drainage would not only have such erosion problems but also help stop the clogging up of bayous due to erosion.”

Part of the problem with the Mississippi River is that “five, or maybe more” major federal agencies — the Coast Guard, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the USDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — have jurisdiction.

Those agencies “don’t necessarily coordinate. The river is so large and has so many purposes. The Corps may be working in New Orleans and Iowa while the EPA is working in Mississippi, the Coast Guard is up and down the river and the NOA is at the mouth. How do you get them to coordinate?”

If re-elected to Congress, one of Cassidy’s long-term goals is to “understand how all these agencies work together and come up with a mechanism where we know they’ll coordinate.”

Asked for an example, Cassidy says the Army Corps of Engineers “is responsible for making sure shipping lanes remain open. The sediment comes down from upriver, settles into shipping lanes and prevents ocean-going vessels from getting to inland ports. So the Corps helps by scooping out the sediment.

“Instead of scooping it and putting it where it could rebuild marshland or farmland — remember, this is sediment from the Missouri Valley and is incredibly fertile — they dump it into the current so it spills out into the Mississippi River.

“Wait a second! Now, while we’ve been speaking, we’ve lost about 10 football fields in Louisiana. Meanwhile, we’re dumping this valuable sediment purposely so it goes out into the Gulf of Mexico. It seems kind of crazy.”

The fallout is affecting Louisiana farmers, insists Cassidy who points to False River, an old oxbow lake in Point Coupee Parish. “It’s easy to see the erosion there. Eventually it flows into Grosse Tete Bayou, which also has erosion. Grosse Tete is clogging up. A big rain comes and it floods the land.

“So, they clean out the sediment, weeds and such. Now, all that happens, is the bayou shifts the flooding to farther downstream.”

In the meantime, the marshes aren’t being replenished.

Ideally, the proposed Mississippi River conservation initiative would help farmers “so they aren’t losing their fertile soils into the lake. And when rains come, it would be distributed throughout the bayou as it heads south to the Gulf of Mexico. And it wouldn’t flood because of the nice flow to the gulf. Limit flooding and we’ll limit erosion. That would be a positive (step) that would breed positive results.”

Since it’s aimed at helping the environment, what are Cassidy’s views on climate legislation? Does he see anything passing this year or will it be pushed off to next year?

“I’m not sure on the prognosis for its passage. I thought it would be dead in the Senate. But now there are a couple of senators working on its behalf.

Cap and trade would be “bad for the United States. It would marginally improve the climate. If you have a carbon-intensive industry you’ll just move it to the Caribbean or India or China. So, even if you accept carbon dioxide as an issue, all it’ll do is shift (locations and) jobs to another place.”

On the other hand, “there is a strong potential that rural co-ops in particular will be penalized because they’re more likely to use coal. So, coal-intensive utilities will pay a higher price — and that’s typically rural co-ops.”

Renewable energy “may benefit farmers. There will be a push for biomass to be used as a source for renewable energy. The question is whether farmers can participate in a way that’s attractive to their bottom lines and offset the increased costs for fuel and the like.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com