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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Engineers help restore Louisiana island, save brown pelicans

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LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) – A stretch of land in the western portion of Calcasieu Lake known as Rabbit Island has been shrinking for decades, the tide washing away more than land each year.

The marsh “island” in Cameron Parish is the only brown pelican rookery in southwest Louisiana. Once 200 acres of land, it is down to just 30 acres and continues to lose nearly half of the brown pelican eggs laid each year to the tide.

About a decade ago, more than 1,000 pelicans nested on the island, but that number dwindled to 400 by 2018, prompting environmental agencies and engineers – including some from Acadiana – to work together to reverse that trend and protect Louisiana’s official state bird.

Royal Engineering in Lafayette has been working alongside other environmental groups to add more land to Rabbit Island and ensure the brown pelican population continues to flourish.

“I’ve been on the Gulf Coast since I was a small child; I want to try to restore it,” said Beau Tate of Lafayette.

Tate, 44, is a civil and coastal engineer for Royal Engineering in Lafayette and is serving as the senior design engineer on the Rabbit Island restoration project. He’s been doing this work for 22 years now.

Originally from Mamou, his love for the outdoors led him to study environmental education at Louisiana State University and eventually to projects like this one.

While the Rabbit Island project is unique with the pelican element, it utilizes Tate’s and his firm’s experience in design and construction for marsh barrier islands. The project calls for the same technology, surveying, geotechnical engineering methods, dredging and so on, said Tate, a senior engineer with Royal.

“It’s all about elevation,” Tate said.

The restoration project will bring the island’s elevation from 1 foot to 3.5 feet, allowing for more nesting area, Tate explained.

To build up the island, Weeks Marine dredged up 606,300 cubic yards of sediment from the Calcasieu Ship Channel two miles away and transported it to the island. The goal is to add 88 acres back to the island, including vegetation, according to a release.

The bird population did make the project more of a challenge, providing different constraints, such as a certain window of time to do the work when the pelicans were not nesting, said Levi LeBourgeois with Royal Engineering.

The project began in August 2020 and came with a tight deadline, as brown pelican nesting season started on March 15.

“We like a challenge,” Tate said.

Fortunately, Rabbit Island’s restoration is nearly complete, wrapping up a several-year process of planning, designing and now construction, shepherded by project manager LeBourgeois.

“It wasn’t just us,” Tate is quick to say.

He and LeBourgeois, 40, worked alongside the Coastal Protection Restoration Agency, or CPRA; the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries; and the Department of the Interior to restore the island.

Tate and others at Royal Engineering performed a data gap analysis and directed the collection of topographic and bathymetric surveys, tide and current data, geotechnical investigations, and analysis within the project area, according to a release.

The $16.4 million-project is being funded by a BP oil settlement from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Louisiana received $5 billion in natural resource damages from the settlement, with $220 million specifically for bird restoration projects such as the one on Rabbit Island.

Royal Engineering typically takes on traditional civil engineering, including work in rural Lafayette Parish and drainage work in Iberia and Jefferson Davis parishes, Tate said. They also work with other firms across the Gulf Coast.

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