Roscoe Liebig, left, and Eldon Kruse, right at Pass Christian Harbor. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

More than three years after a historic downpour within the Mississippi River basin led to financial hardships for the Gulf Coast’s fisheries, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must seek consultation over the effects of opening the Bonnet Carré Spillway.

The spillway, which was built in the 1930s, is designed to redirect potential floodwaters from the Mississippi River away from New Orleans and into Lake Ponchartrain. But when the Corps opens the spillway, the river’s water eventually reaches the Mississippi Sound, and can impact the salinity in a way that kills off species such as oysters, shrimp and crabs.

After historic amounts of rainfall in 2018 and 2019, the Corps opened the spillway an unprecedented three times in two years. Mississippi Today published a series in 2020 on the impacts of the spillway openings, where Gulf Coast fishermen questioned the future of their careers after dealing with one disaster after another.

In his ruling on Wednesday, Judge Louis Guirola wrote that the Corps violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by not seeking consultation from the National Marine Fisheries Service — a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA — when opening the spillway. The law requires federal agencies to seek consultation if they take an action that impacts essential fish habitat.

Guirola ordered the Corps to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding the impact of the spillway openings by Sept. 30 of this year.

Guirola dismissed a related lawsuit, filed by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, in September, 2021. In that case, later argued by Secretary of State Michael Watson, Mississippi officials argued that the Corps should complete an updated environmental impact study on the effects of the spillway openings, and also that the Corps should open the Morganza Spillway, which would instead send water into southern Louisiana.

The judge dismissed the case with prejudice over a lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.