BASTROP, Louisiana — Chris Rice of The Nature Conservancy stood on top of the last earthen dam holding back the Mollicy Bayou from its natural path that was blocked more than 40 years ago.
"This is the last cut to be made that will let Mollicy Bayou flow back into the Ouachita River," Rice said. "It's the first time in 40 years it will flow like it used to from the upland pine woods. Now that's pretty cool."
When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service equipment engineers Mike Simmons, Ronnie Tidwell and Kyle Cheeseman make that final cut this week, it will mark the completion of what is believed to be the largest floodplain reconnection project in North America.
Scientists and engineers with The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service painstakingly excavated the stream to its natural path, complete with meandering curves, sloped banks and varying depths.
That phase was complete last year following the reconnection of the smaller stream Shiloh Creek, but both ends of Mollicy Bayou were plugged until a new crop of natural hardwood seedlings could take root along the banks for soil stabilization.
"This is a functioning floodplain now," Rice said.
Mollicy Farm, a 20,000-acre tract located in the northwestern corner of Morehouse Parish, was cleared for farmland and surrounded by a 30-foot levee in the 1960s before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the land in the 1990s. It's part of the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge.
The partners first made strategic cuts in the levee about five years ago and then began to work on the interior hydrology of the project. When the floodplain was cleared for farmland the streams were filled in or straightened to allow fast drainage from the fields.
But the rushing waters from those straight flumes also flushed loads of sediment and nutrients directly into the Ouachita River, which harmed water quality.
By restoring the floodplain's natural interior plumbing the land will not only act as storage during floods, protecting populated areas like Ouachita Parish, but also act as a filter for the water when it drains back into the river following floods.
"Restoring the internal hydrology as it was intended to function will allow the water to recede from the floodplain much slower, which will allow the sediments and nutrients to be deposited over the entire floodplain instead of dumped into the river," said Brett Hortman, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's North Louisiana Refuge Complex.
"The sediment load into the river has already decreased over the past five years since the levee was first breached by a flood," Hortman said. "We believe the hydrology and the new trees will accelerate the natural filtering process."
It's been a signature project, said Keith Ouchley, director of The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana and Mississippi.
"We've given it all the help we know how to put it on the right track and have high confidence that it will pay dividends for decades to come," Ouchley said. "I can't wait to one day sit on the banks of the Mollicy Bayou under the shade of a cypress tree."
Simmons, one of the equipment engineers who had to make the theoretic plans work on the ground, said he sometimes sits back and visualizes the way the floodplain once was and what it can be again.
"We just tried to put it back a little at a time," Simmons said. "And it's coming back. I'd love to be able to see it in big timber again."
The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have provided the palette. Now, the experts said, it's up to Mother Nature to finish the job.
"Once it's reconnected, we have to let nature take its course, and nature usually does a pretty good job," Hortman said.
Information from: The News-Star, http://www.thenewsstar.com