The Water Challenge seeks to spur innovation in creative water management solutions for the Greater New Orleans region by awarding $50,000 annually through a competitive process. Sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Water Challenge is part of The Idea Village’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.
“This is the southern extent of the Biloxi Marshes,” points Tyler Ortego. “We’re right next to the southern extension of MRGO, less than a mile away. If you see higher vegetation that’s it. The other side of this lake you get out into Breton Sound.”
Ortego engineers and sells the oyster break units for coastal protection through his company Ora Estuaries, which recently won Greater New Orleans’ 4th annual Water Challenge.
Tyler’s oyster break units are being used in an oyster habitat restoration project run by the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana. Prior to this project, the Nature Conservancy put 4 miles of reef along the coast of Louisiana. This restoration project in St. Bernard Parish brings the total to 4.5 miles.
“Put a substrate in the water that oyster larvae, or spat, will attach to and grow, and make other oysters and will maintain itself over time,” says Seth Blitch, the coast program director for the Nature Conservancy. “This is an area that does really well for oysters.”
Standing on a boat about ten feet from marshy shoreline, Blitch points to a large crane lifting and lowering a huge concrete ring into the water.
“These concrete rings have three footers on them. The footers actually sink into sediment, and the rest of that unit sticks above it,” he explains. “We’re going to put three rings down in a triangle fashion, and pyramid that faces in the opposite direction. We’ll do that down this 2500 feet of shoreline. Roughly, one half-mile.”
“The idea was to minimalize the material that you actually build with, and let the oysters do the work,” says Ortego, who originally came up with the idea over a decade ago while studying Biological Engineering at LSU. “The challenge was to come up with an engineered oyster breakwater that had better engineering fundamentals than what was really out there.”
Ortega also invented something he calls "oyster krete" — a secret, patented recipe for a biological additive which enhances oyster spat set and growth. The top layer of concrete rings are all made with oyster krete.
“Our whole state is disappearing,” says Ortego. “If we expect to live here, we have to protect the coast and build out the vast expanses of marshes.” Ortego says places like this marsh in St. Bernard Parish, where the water’s salinity is perfect for oyster growth, are ideal locations for oyster habit restoration.
“Oysters are calcium carbonate — like the sand in Florida,” says Ortego. "When they die, they become part of the sediment system. And we’re hoping by having enough of these reefs out here we’re really contributing to that process. Shoreline protection is one tool in the coastal protection toolbox.”
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
This story originally referred to an oyster habitat restoration project run by the Nature Conservancy of America. It is, in fact, the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana.