CHICAGO — When Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn was chatting with a team of scientists in Louisiana more than a year ago, he offered to sling some mud down south.
Millions of tons of unwanted gooey sludge were choking lakes and rivers throughout Illinois. The sediment, caused by farmland and urban soil runoff, was blocking barges as well as harming the fish population.
In contrast, Louisiana's marshlands were steadily eroding over the decades, leaving the coastline vulnerable to storms and endangering wildlife. Quinn wondered if the two states could help each other if Louisiana took some of Illinois' mud.
In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, what began as a casual suggestion has turned into a possible solution that both states are seriously exploring.
Illinois officials are planning to travel to New Orleans this month to discuss the proposal with Louisiana state staff and environmental experts, and to figure out where the mud could best be used.
The cost of moving mud is a potential hurdle, however, and a bill that neither state is eager to pick up. Proponents have asked the federal government for $5 million to fund a pilot project.
"Frankly, we'll take whatever we can get," Quinn said. "We all agree the dirt is a resource that's out of place. Given what's happened with this year's storms, this seems like an ideal solution."
For years, coastal engineers in Louisiana have fought to preserve the region's wetlands and barrier islands that act as natural speed bumps against hurricane winds and storm surges.
"In general, three miles of marsh will suppress one foot of surge," said Mark Ford, deputy director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a nonprofit group based in Baton Rouge. "When Katrina hit, we lost 100 square miles of marsh."
But long before Katrina struck in August, followed by Rita in September, such natural buffers were waning.
Part of the coastal edge of Louisiana is slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, and miles of canals were carved through the marsh to aid with shipping, and gas and oil ventures.
And levees, while protecting portions of the Delta from Mississippi River flooding, block mud and sediment that would otherwise wash onto the marshes and barrier islands to help repair erosion.
Louisiana's political and scientific communities are brainstorming ways to obtain materials to rebuild and reinforce the marshes. Other proposed solutions have included using old Christmas trees to form dams, and lashing together storm debris to create fences to trap sediment.
"The key is to find sediment outside our ecosystem, otherwise we're robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Len Bahr, science advisor to the Louisiana Governor's Office of Coastal Activities. "No one thinks that Illinois mud by itself can save our coast. But it can clearly help, and it has enormous potential to build awareness and test out the economics of this kind of strategy."
In the past, Illinois has shown that this sort of win-win mud partnership can work.
Several years ago, the city of Chicago was working with United States Steel to figure out how to transform a closed mill beside Lake Michigan into a 573-acre residential and commercial development. One big obstacle stood in the way: Much of the land was coated in slag, a residue created in steel production. Grass will not grow in slag. City officials needed environmentally clean dirt -- and lots of it.
At the same time, more than 160 miles to the southwest, East Peoria, Ill., was faced with having to either dredge a channel through Lower Peoria Lake or close its marina because of too much mud.
In the spring of 2004, more than 100,000 tons of it was dredged from the lake, loaded onto barges and shipped to Chicago. It was enough to cover as much as one third of the 100 acres alongside Lake Michigan that had been set aside for a park. The project, dubbed "Mud-to-Parks" and heralded as a success, was funded by a $2-million state grant.
The same process could be used to ship mud to the Gulf Coast, said John Marlin, a scientist at the waste management and research center of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"For us, it's a heart attack situation: The backwaters in Illinois are having a coronary right now," said Marlin, who helped lead the Mud-to-Parks effort and is spearheading the talks in Louisiana. "If we don't get rid of the sediment, they'll fill with mud and be taken over by willow trees. It seems a waste to be choking on all this sediment, when there's such a need for it elsewhere."