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Should LaCoastPost encompass the entire Gulf?

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Editor’s note: A casual idea turned into a brainstorm after a recent trip to College Station Texas to check out the 60th anniversary of the Department of Oceanography at Texas A&M. The idea was the concept of expanding the scope of LaCoastPost to include the entire coast surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mississippi River delta system was always envisioned as the principal theme for LaCoastPost. Nevertheless, in October 2008 I chose the name LaCoastPost for its ambiguity; i.e., it could refer specifically to the Louisiana Coast or the generic “global coast.”

This left the door open to eventually broadening the scope to the entire gulf coast, coasts in general and deltas around the world.

I hasten to add that, with the benefit of 13 month’s experience, the largest delta in North America provides more than enough to write about. Expanding the “domain” of LaCoastPost would therefore require additional person-power and financial resources.

My thoughts on expanding the scope of LaCoastPost were partly provoked by a keynote presentation to Aggie alumnae and students by Dr. Les Shephard, himself an oceanography alumnus, now a VP with Sandia Laboratories.

On the afternoon of November 7, while driving the roughly 260 miles from College Station to Dallas and the 400 miles back to Baton Rouge the next day, my thinking took the following trajectory:

* Shephard spoke about the inseparable global connections between energy and freshwater, specifically focusing on the gulf coast in the context of climate change. He described the emerging crunch between people and freshwater in the sun belt, as exemplified by a growing interest in converting brackish ground water to a potable state!

* I was struck that he omitted mentioning the most obvious and visible source of surface freshwater in south central North America, the Mississippi River. In view of an imminent American freshwater shortage, I’m certain that the huge volume of water drained to and transported by the Big Muddy is on the minds of our increasingly parched neighbors both to the east and west.

* While describing the rapid historical and projected growth in population along the gulf coast, Dr. Shephard failed to mention the prominent outlier to this pattern. I’m thinking of the 200 mile reach between the Sabine and Pearl Rivers, where the coastal population has remained static or has shrunk, largely in response to hurricane effects.

* Coastal Louisiana has lost not only population but also remarkable political stroke – historic legislative influence in DC. In bygone days this influence would have guaranteed protection of the riverborne freshwater and sediment resources that are essential to sustain America’s Delta.*

* Despite our current weak political position we must pitch a new management paradigm for the Mississippi River. For example, we need to use every drop of the 0.3 million to 1.3 million cubic feet of freshwater that flows through the Old River Control Structure every second. I suspect that this enormous flow will more and more be viewed by the out-of-state public as anachronistic and wasteful – and that it will be targeted by a significant portion of thirty million thirsty Texans.

* Louisiana’s coastal protection and restoration planning effort is far too provincial, largely limited to state political boundaries. This discourages valuable interstate collaboration that would accrue to our scientific – and political benefit.

Readers of LaCoastPost are familiar with my relentless call for a larger role in the restoration program for notable Louisiana coastal scientists. This recommendation also includes coastal researchers at out-of-state institutions around the Gulf of Mexico. During my short stay in College Station, conversations with oceanographer Steve DiMarco and others reinforced my belief that relevant applied coastal science from our neighboring states is virtually invisible to Louisiana coastal policy officials and – inexplicably – even to some Louisiana scientists!

Both the federally administered Gulf of Mexico Program (GOMP) and the state-run Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) pay lip service to the importance of state-of-the-art science. Nevertheless, my experience has taught me that these politically-driven and agency-managed programs do not share my enthusiasm for truly independent academic science.

While writing this piece I contacted some faithful readers re their thoughts about the pros and cons of expanding the scope of LaCoastPost. The following three comments are presented without attribution because time limits precluded asking permission to use names.

1) My 2 cents, stick with the coastal Louisiana focus. There’s a ton of stuff to cover and Lord knows it needs your irreverent and critical spotlight.

2) Len, a very good and timely point. Restoring the delta, or coastal plain, a water and sediment budget is essential. We do however commonly take for granted that first, there is enough water to go around, and second, that the energy required to mobilize and disperse sediment is proportional to the hydraulic grade line.  Any upstream activities, including storage, will have sebsequent impacts that will be nonlinear in nature. If we think the Mississippi is dynamic at the moment, it could become even more so when these practices take effect.

3) I would vote against broadening the scope of your excellent blog to a gulfwide reach. Yes, everything’s connected and we’re all interdependent, but the exceptional nature of the delta’s origins, characteristics and crises make it well deserving of focused attention.

I’ve seen lots of GIS projects collapse because of well-intended calls to ‘expand the study area.’ Going deeper into the existing study area – in other words focusing – is usually the better decision.

Conclusion

Despite my conviction that we are missing a vital opportunity to more closely ally with coastal researchers in our neighboring gulf states, expanding LaCoastPost would not solve this problem. In addition, I envision that such an expansion would involve establishing satellite regional “bureaus” that would require recruiting folks with sufficient passion, time and independent support, probably a Quixotic dream.** Thus for the foreseeable future the scope of LaCoastPost will maintain its focus on the Mississippi River delta system.

Len Bahr (len.bahr@gmail.com)

*America’s Delta strikes me as highly preferable to America’s Wetland when referring to the most unique and unambiguous coastal feature in North America.

**Nevertheless, I would happily discuss with coastal blogger wannabees the formation of parallel regional blogs with whom LaCoastPost could partner.

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  1. At last an app that lets me watch bbc overseas!

  2. Len- anymore I do tend to question about everything as there is a lot of misinformation to sort through.

    I spent four years working with steam propulsion generation on a large 8 boilered ship; and will agree there is some water ‘lost’ here in the process; BUT the system is generally ‘closed’ and the water used over and over again through the generation of steam and then the recondensing of steam back to water and recirculating in the closed system to again be transformed back into high energy steam.

    I think in your presentation of data that a definitive QUANTITY (such as cubic feet) rather than a PERCENTAGE would be more useful.
    I also think you should have mentioned ‘upfront’ in your article that you were referencing ‘thermoelectric generation;’ if this was indeed mentioned I am overlooking it.

    I also spent 30 years after that working in water resources; and yes I DO QUESTION your statement about water being physically ‘consumed.’

    Cheers

  3. Is water really physically “consumed” in the “process of orthodox power generation??” I’m assuming ‘hydropower’ is being referenced here.

    If so, how is it ‘consumed??’

    I would say that the ‘hydrologic cycle’ is about as ‘renewable’ as one can get.

    • HH-
      Your skepticism is reliably predictable and consistent. I didn’t take notes during the talk in College Station but the distinguished speaker from Sandia Laboratories made a very big point about the huge water requirements for thermoelectric (not hydroelectric) power generation and how Americans tend to be ignorant of the water cost of turning on the A/C. Here is a quote from the US Energy Dept. that took me about two minutes to locate:

      Estimating Freshwater Needs to Meet 2025 Electricity Generating Capacity Forecasts
      Jeffrey Hoffmann, Sarah Forbes, and Thomas Feeley U.S. Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory June 2004

      Electricity production requires a reliable, abundant, and predictable source of water. In terms of total U.S. water use, the thermoelectric generating industry is the largest user of the nation’s water resources (i.e., fresh, surface and groundwater, saline water). Saline water use is approximately 30% of the overall thermoelectric use, and the remaining 70% is nearly all fresh surface water, making it second only to agriculture as the largest domestic user of freshwater, and accounting for 39% of all freshwater withdrawals in the United States.5 Roughly 70% of this water is used in fossil-fuel-based electricity generation, primarily for cooling purposes.6 Coal, our nation’s most abundant fossil fuel, currently accounts for 52% of the U.S. electricity generation and, on average, each kWh of electricity generated from coal requires approximately 25 gallons of water to produce, primarily for use as cooling water.

  4. Hi, Len. This is an interesting question. But, you can have your brioche and eat it too: Keep the excellent name LaCoastPost and also invite guest contributors or regional bureaus as you suggest — and you can always write about related matters along the Gulf Coast, yourself. There’s nothing to stop you from expanding beyond the state lines. Many of the same environmental or political concerns affecting Louisiana also affect Florida or Texas, for example.

    But, in general, I would agree with “1) My 2 cents, stick with the coastal Louisiana focus.” Louisiana has particular geological predicaments not faced (either as acutely or at all) by other Gulf Coast states.

    I confess I sometimes worry whether LNW is in danger of overextending, touching on matters not immediately or obviously related to flood protection (incl. coastal restor.) + anti-war + environmental concerns (as with global warming, health care reform, or musings on the nature of conservatism, etc.). But it is okay to reach beyond the immediate scope if one keeps open the question “how is this connected to the site’s core mission?”

    I too prefer the designation “America’s Delta” over “America’s Wetland.”

    Mark

    Editor’s note: LNW stands for Levees Not War, an important blog that deals with the issues of infrastructure, the environment and peace. Mark LaFlaur is a Louisiana expatriate living in New York who manages this blog.

    • Mark-
      Thanks for your comments. I will increase my effort to attract guest posts from other coastal regions.
      Len

    • Robert Esenwein says:

      Len, I concur with Mark Lafleur’s comments. Do not enlarge the focus at this point except for relevant observation/research from outside resources. The subsiding delta has to be center stage.

  5. Len, I think that focusing on “America’s Delta” does cover a much more extensive area and system, simply because of it’s large size and influence, and you can get at the larger Gulf coast scope, and even beyond, by maintaining that focus – sort of an “inside out” rather than a less systemic and perhaps less relevant “outside in” approach.

    Regarding the water availablity and use theme of your post, we will have a heckuva time defending our water needs, whether it be for coastal sustenance or public supply, if we continue to disregard its value for those purposes by despoiling it in the process of leaching gas storage caverns in salt domes and fracing subsurface rock, among other uses that diminish a life-sustaining resource and convert it into a waste.

    • Randy-
      The talk by Les Shephard in College Station emphasized the enormous volume of freshwater consumed in the process of orthodox power generation. This little-known fact is another important argument for conservation and conversion to renewable energy sources.
      Dr. Shephard painted a great mental picture of how much water on the globe is drinkable – one teaspoon full in a gallon of salt water.

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