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Criticizing coastal policy is not unpatriotic!

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LaCoastPost editor using thumb power to influence coastal policy

LaCoastPost editor using thumb power to influence coastal policy

By Len Bahr, PhD*

Since retiring from the Governor’s Office in September ’08 I’ve been inspired to devote considerable time and effort questioning how effectively my tax dollars and yours are being spent to fix the most threatened coast on the continent. My judgment is obviously subjective but my motives are pure and my perspective is informed by long experience.

Pointing out flaws in Louisiana’s coastal program is not a traditional practice. Some may consider it heresy to challenge what has become an almost sacred program.

Frank, open discussion of all aspects of coastal planning is healthy and should be strongly encouraged. I grow tired of hearing the same voices all the time. On that note it surprises me that some former well known coastal players who once dominated the microphone have virtually disappeared from the scene. Perhaps the time they used to spend pontificating was more an expression of ego than serious concern for the coast.

On February 7 I posted a critical review of the state’s draft 2011 annual plan for coastal protection and restoration. I gave the plan low marks for fifteen very specific reasons.

A colleague who read that post was inspired to attend one of three public meetings held to discuss the plan. He used the opportunity to solicit feedback on my critique from both state officials and ‘civilian’ participants and sent me the following comments via email:

Based on the reaction I received from the coastal recovery folks many of them do not like you. They also seem to think that for many years you were part of the problem. Now they finally have some money and some sort of direction and things are happening.

I know better than that but these are some of the impressions I got.

A bunch of the local residents at the meeting were very positively interested in your 15 issues and they thought you were right on point.

Thanks again for your thoughts and suggestions.

We definitely have a real uphill struggle in play.

I didn’t ask my informant to identify my critics, although I can guess who they are. Rather than taking such comments personally I interpret them as evidence that LaCoastPost is being read and is striking a nerve. Some officials apparently don’t appreciate my self-appointed role as coastal curmudgeon and critic. They seem to be unhappy that retirement didn’t diminish my interest in peering under the coastal rug.

I’m bemused by the charge that I hindered progress on saving the coast, while the primary purpose of my employment was the promotion of such progress. I fully acknowledge that for many years I (unsuccessfully) objected to popular feel-good, band-aid coastal projects, such as piling rocks in front of retreating shorelines. Such projects have mostly served to provide excuses for ribbon cuttings.

Being a critic is clearly not a ticket to popularity. As the son of professional artists in Baltimore I know very well that art critics are traditionally disliked or even reviled by the targets of their prose. It is often said that criticizing is a lot easier than doing. That’s true, but some critics have considerable experience and insight – either with the artist’s brush or with coastal science.

Responsibility and accountability for the 2011 annual state plan belongs, not with those who have labored diligently over its details, but on the shoulders of those who sign the final plan. For years my signature appeared on the cover page of similar planning documents and I remember worrying about how the overall tone and bottom line message would be interpreted by a technically uninformed reader, e.g., a state legislator.

The monetary cost of becoming a full time coastal critic has been more than offset by psychic rewards. In hindsight, seventeen months after regaining the independent voice that I lost at the end of the Foster administration, I cannot imagine returning to a paying job in which outspokenness and candor are strongly discouraged.

The negative comments above are contradicted by enthusiastic words of encouragement from a number of folks. These include agency staffers in the trenches as well as coastal advocates with long memories. I’ve been told many times, usually off the record, that LaCoastPost has created an invaluable new outlet, what ecologists might call an “empty niche.” Hearing this is music to my typing finger.

Finally, critics of my criticism, most of whom know me only superficially, should realize that I’m pretty stubborn. Expressions of disdain for either my prose or my personality has the effect of further steeling my spine, inspiring me to open the throttle** another notch.

*Founding editor (len.bahr@gmail.com)

**For younger readers, my first car, a 1940 Ford, had a hand operated connection to the carburetor called a throttle. This supplemented the foot-activated accelerator, the device that has recently caused Toyota so much grief.

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  13. Kelly Haggar says:

    Faults in the coastal zone? Dozens; maybe hundreds, especially if you include north of the zone, such as above I-10/I-12.

    I’ve posted this URL on this before earlier in this thread, see Kelly Haggar, 2010-02-16, at 10:23:54. It’s 25MB and over 200 pages so it takes a while to digest. Great source (disclosure: my better half is one of the co-authors). Woody has a lot of good material on his pubs page. The LGS (sorry, Heidi; “Louisiana Geological Survey,” a state agency based at LSU in Baton Rouge).

    Gagliano, S. M., Kemp III, E. B., Wicker, K. M., and Wiltenmuth, K. S., 2003

    Active Geological Faults and Land Change in Southeastern Louisiana: A Study of the Contribution of Faulting to Relative Subsidence Rates, Land Loss, and Resulting Effects of Flood Control, Navigation, Hurricane Protection and Coastal Restoration Projects

    URL: http://www.coastalenv.com/Active_Geological_Faults_and_Land_Change_in_SE_LA.pdf

    &&&&& copied 28 Feb 10 &&&&&&&&&

    Saving the Mississippi R. delta is a 3D issue
    1 comment
    Kelly Haggar 2010-02-18 09:28:17

    I’m not very confident we can find a neutral jury to sort out the conflicting theories and aportion the amount of sink attributable to each component.

    However, some progress has been made lately. 10 and 15 years ago the life sciences folks were putting out “top 10 causes” lists which were remarkably free of geology. The first edition of the America’s Wetlands PR campaign was similarly almost a geology-free zone.

    Much remains to be done. The MMS study on canals last year (but really written by the wetlands center in Lafayette) is a classic example of pure 2 dimensional thinking.

    Programs such as the river modelling I watched last Friday at the Baton Rouge Geological Society need a wider airing. Might be a good topic for a guest post.

  14. Walt Sikora says:

    Kelly Haggar,

    Interesting. How many faults of this type are there in the coastal marsh zone? Do you have any idea what percent of coastal marsh is affected this way by faults?

  15. Walt Sikora says:

    Kelly Haggar,

    I am intrigued. Please tell me what you have observed and photographed over the years from Hwy 434, and why it is inconsistent with the land process and mechanism I described.

    • Kelly Haggar says:

      Kathy does the veggies and took the pix; I did the GPS. She’ll answer up her part when she gets a chance.

      Meanwhile, the obvious problem with the Goose Point area for the typical coastal loss scenarios is that none of the usual suspects are present. It’s not leveed and never has been, there’s only one pipeline canal of any significance (and it’s well east of the main loss area), the loss signature is identical to the aerials of places that do have legions of E & P canals, yet the oil & gas production is nil, etc.

      What it does share in common with the coastal losses much further south is that is highly likely to be on the downthrown block of a listric fault. Dozens of McCauley auger cores were taken down many lines crossing loss boundaries for the 2003 fault study. They showed clear fault displacements. It would take seismic to know for sure but we think the best explantion for Goose Point is a fault.

  16. Walt Sikora says:

    Kelly.

    The tide does flood into impounded marshes since as you pointed out complete encirclement by spoil banks is not really possible. However keep in mind that the critical problem created by spoil banks is the blocking of subsurface drainage. Grasses of the genus Spartina in coastal environments can’t live subtidally they can only live intertidally.

    In marshes impounded by spoil banks, the water still flows in and out on the marsh surface, but the water below the surface in the root zone seldom if ever is drained or exchanged even if there are gaps in the spoil banks. This is so because subsurface water percolation and drainage is much slower than surface water exchange. Low tide isn’t long enough to drain all of an impounded marsh’s root zone through a gap in the spoil bank. In fact marsh will begin to rot even if it has a spoil bank on only one side, and the size of the rotten area is proportional to the length of that spoil bank

    • Kelly Haggar says:

      Take Hwy 434 south out of Lacombe, go all the way to the lake, and carefully observe the west side of the road, especially south of the Mildred bridge/ canal. (Don’t ignore the roadside ditch.)

      Unless you have been making that trip for years, photographing the changes, you won’t see the trend. However, what you will see out there now is inconsistent with your described land loss mechanism.

  17. Walt Sikora says:

    Kelly,

    Thanks for updated info.

    The provision for the mineral rights to revert back to the state once all of a given tract in underwater sounds like a good idea however the operative word here is ALL. This gave the so-called “land owners” incentive to preserve the spoil banks resulting from the canals they dug through the tidal marshes to drill the wells in the first place. These spoil banks act as levees disrupting tidal water flow and by also compressing the marsh under the spoil, they pinch-off subsurface water flow that irrigates the roots of the marsh grass on each tidal cycle, preventing the build-up of toxic hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Interruption of subsurface water percolation and lateral flow results in the die-off of the microbes that keep H2S in check by incorporating it into iron pyrite framboids as a metabolic product.

    The result is that many hectares of salt and brackish marshes turn into “rotten marsh” bounded by spoil banks where the marsh grass gradually dies back into discrete clumps before dying out altogether. The marsh disintegrates and eventually turns into open water, but the “land owners” aren’t worried because the tops of their spoil banks are still above water and their mineral rights where they have drilled are safe. These same “land owners” opposed backfilling even abandoned canals, with dry hole wells, as was proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service years ago. And so that was that.

    As you said, “unless the legislature takes an affirmative step to amend the law, that’s our default law today.” To put it another way, that is Louisiana “status quo”. Changing the law wont happen, remember who Huey Long was referring to back in the 1930s.

    • Kelly Haggar says:

      Your analysis of die back may not go far enough. Even the spoil banks are sinking and there are places where even they are under water all the time. Additionally, the spoil banks are not solid; there are many gaps in virtually all of them. Cutting off tidal flow isn’t possible under those conditions.

      Woody Galiano at CEI did a nice study of the role of faulting in land loss in 2003; my better half was one of the four co-authors. Go to

      http://www.coastalenv.com/html/publications.html

      and scroll down to the “Active Faults” line. Big file; over 200 pages and almost 26 MB. There’s also a bunch of more recent pubs and testimony there.

  18. Walt Sikora says:

    Sultan Alam

    You are quite correct, there is something basically wrong with the way of doing things in Louisiana, especially on the coast and with coastal policy. An old idiom best describes it: “too many cooks spoil the broth”. In Louisiana there are so-called “land owners” that own vast areas of intertidal wetlands and have the mineral rights to these tracts. These land owners are in fact land-holding companies that have been extracting oil and gas for nearly a century. Combine that with the influence that the petroleum industry has in Louisiana and voila; you have seemingly endless attention to the many coastal problems, but nothing ever gets solved because the status quo is the real, although unwritten, policy of the state and every state agency including the universities which depend on state monies.

    Speaking from experience, woe comes to anybody who dares to disregard this unwritten status quo policy of the state. So what have we got? Government “bought and paid for like a sack of potatoes”. That’s a famous quote from Huey Long himself referring to the Louisiana State legislators in the capitol when the Kingfish as a U.S. Senator come back to Baton Rouge to conduct some “business”. Get the picture?

    • Kelly Haggar says:

      Walt

      Those mineral rights revert (“escheat” in common law) to the state once all of a given tract is under water. Gives a powerful incentive to the landowner to keep at least some of the land above high tide.

      New Orleans has a direct financial incentive over and above the “restoration as protection” argument. Track down the Wisner donation history to the city and its current cash proceeds to the city’s budget. I understand it’s several million dollars a year,

      Last year I listened to a legal discussion group going back and forth on mineral rights. One speaker wanted to keep the law as is. That way the state gets the money. He’d rather have the cash than the land; wants to use it for hospitals and universities. Besides, getting people further north avoids evacuation issues and reduces property damage and relief efforts.

      Of course the lawyer for the landowners took the opposite position for obvious reasons. (You can imagine what someone like Billy Nungeser would think of ideas like that one.)

      However, unless the legislature takes an affirmative step to amend the law, that’s our default law today. In fact, our law is already more favorable to landowners than most states. Went to a continuing ed program on the coastal law of Texas and was surprised to discover they don’t have ANY reclamation provisions like we do. In fact, most states don’t. If you feel the need for an early Halloween scare in Texas, Alabama, or Mississippi this year , check out Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi, 484 U.S. 469 (1988). You might also pay attention to that “Stop the Beaches” case from Florida the US Supreme Ct will hand down this year. When issued it will be Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection et al, _____ US _______ (2010).

  19. Kelly Haggar says:

    Len,

    No, it ISN’T unpatriotic. Until 14 months ago, the Maddows of the punditry often said that dissent was the highest form of patriotism.

    Speaking of dissent and the coast, the January speaker at the New Orleans Geological Society went after AGW with a hammer and tong. The February speaker at the Baton Rouge Geological Society had some interesting things to say about the Mississippi River modeling effort below New Orleans.

    I’m convinced no diversion below Davis Pond is worthwhile, with the possible exception of Violet. For Violet to make sense from a coastal perspective (as opposed to just increased oyster production off Mississippi , which is why Trent Lott put it in the 2007 WRDA), the “building land” focus needs to be inside the Chalmette Loop. That requires the 40 Arpent levee to become the main defense, not the outer loop along MRGO. That won’t happen so Violet will remain problematic.

    Using the Central Wetlands project and the Violet interior as polders only makes sense if the 40 Arpent levee is high enough and strong enough to contain everything that sloshes over the Chalmette Loop. (If we get another breach all bets are off since of course the 40 can’t begin to hold out the Gulf.)

    Finally, it’s beyond obvious that the same cubic foot of water and of sediment is going to be committed to at least a half dozen different projects many miles apart. There isn’t enough material (or money) to do the whole program. 1850-1963, sediment 400 to 550 million tons/year; 1970-1990, 220-230 MT/yr; today about 124 MT/yr. (The sand compenent seems to have stayed pretty constant at 20% over these years.)

    So, keep pushing for your “unplan.”

  20. Sultan Alam says:

    Len,
    I read regularly your editorials and admire your single handed effort to do something about the vanishing Louisiana coast.
    I have also been watching since about 25 years and sometimes even trying to participate to do something about the Louisiana coastal restoration; unfortunately we are not getting anywhere. As an international consultant I participate in projects in many countries around the world; some of them are in so called emerging countries, and almost everywhere projects are being studied, designed and constructed within reasonably short span of time, and they are functioning satisfactorily. In Louisiana, I must say that nothing interesting or worth mentioning has been done during the recent years regarding coastal restoration. Although millions of dollars are being spent every year including undoing projects which were built only a few years ago! There must be something basically wrong in the way of doing things in the State of Louisiana otherwise how do we explain such lack success in one of the most developed countries, if not the most developed country of the world?

    Sultan Alam.

  21. Clyde P. Martin says:

    WAY TO GO !!!

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