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Coastal policy paper more travel guide than road map.

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Editor’s note: A 3rd post on the concept of using the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) as a significant source of river water to nourish the Pontchartrain Basin has been postponed until next week.

ngulfcoast-1Lensmall2.21.10by Len Bahr, PhD*

I note with great interest the back-to-back release of two short but critical White House policy documents, each with national significance but one specifically focused on coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. Incredibly, both documents weigh in at under 20 pages!

First there was an 11 page outline for reforming national health care on February 22 and then a 16 page document on March 4 called a road map for the restoration of the northern gulf coast. Both documents blatantly violate the bureaucratic rule that significance requires heft and detail.

Yogi Berra is famously supposed to have said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Such advice from a computerized voice on a GPS device would be hilarious, if unhelpful. I flashed on Berra’s quote recently when the Obama administration issued this so-called White House ‘road map.’

‘Road map’ is a misleading title

Call me obsessive, but since founding LaCoastPost I’ve become particularly sensitive to the importance of using appropriate words and symbols to define problems and solutions. It may seem trivial but ‘Road map’ strikes me as a poor title for such an important document.

A comparison of official road maps from Texas to Florida shows that south Louisiana, largely dominated by open water and wetlands, is uniquely short on roads in general and east-west roadways in particular. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I  have “railed” at the urgent need for an obvious solution to this problem, east-west passenger rail service from Florida to Texas.

The title ‘road map’ thus seems ironic and something of a misnomer for the Louisiana coast. In addition, the White House report contains no graphics, so it hardly qualifies as a map.

Reception of the White House coastal document

Putting aside its title, the White House “travel guide” has garnered unprecedented enthusiasm, both from environmental interests** and government officials. The latter praise may be qualified, however, based on comments by Garret Graves, Louisiana’s top coastal official. He recently praised the document and the working group that drafted it but expressed concern that the actions seemed somewhat slanted toward ecosystem restoraton rather than flood protection. I would counter that, in the absence of ecosystem restoration, flood protection is technically and fiscally infeasible.

Some recreational fishing interests have raised concerns about the process that led to the coastal report, on the grounds that the interagency working group that produced the document did not adequately consider public input. Having participated in one of the meetings held to solicit public input to the coastal document (at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans) I challenge that criticism.

In terms of style, the White House coastal policy document articulates critical points in direct language with little excess verbiage. This style contrasts starkly with most Louisiana coastal planning documents, which tend toward wordiness.

In terms of substance, the coastal ‘travel guide’ describes climate change and the deltaic setting as central to the coastal crises. These two topics are consistently dismissed or downplayed in both state and federal documents. The following two quotes from pages one and two of the White House report, are examples:

Future impacts associated with storms, subsidence and sea level rise will serve to only amplify the region’s vulnerability.

Sediment is the lifeblood of the Louisiana coastal ecosystem. Coastal Louisiana was formed over the course of seven thousand years by deltaic processes, including intermittent flooding of the Mississippi River, which delivered sediment to coastal regions.

I have long complained, without effect, that neither the State Master Plan nor the draft 2011 Annual Coastal Plan includes simple declarative statements that south Louisiana is uniquely important because it’s a delta. This fact of course means that south Louisiana is uniquely vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change – in addition to subsidence and a serious sediment deficit.

Specific comments on the coastal ‘road map’

In reviewing the White House coastal document I’m struck by the following:

The report provides a concise catalog of existing federal coastal actions and commitments in Louisiana and Mississippi, ongoing programs with authority over coastal projects. The point is made appropriately that there is considerable room to coordinate and integrate these programs more effectively. It is interesting to see a comparison between contrasting strategies of the two states.

The document makes it clear that the Working group intends to remain active, i.e., that producing the paper is not the end of the process. Most planning and policy documents have ended up as dust collectors.

No matter how many assurances I hear from state and federal officials about basing coastal policy on sound science I remain extremely dubious that science will have an official independent seat at the coastal table. Thus I am heartened to see that the White House coastal document emphasizes a basic role for science to deal with the major uncertainties that stand between success and failure.

I am also glad to see that the report recognizes the crucial importance of sediments and the need for a regional sediment budget (although that phrase is not used specifically).

There is no more important topic in addressing problems of the northern gulf coast than prioritizing and coordinating restoration programs and projects and the White House document recognizes this issue. Hopefully, the state will request help from the White House work group on the project priority procedure described (with no specifics) in the draft 2011 annual plan (Chapter 3).

I was glad to read that the report describes the need to codify and make permanent the focus on the northern gulf, so that progress made won’t end with the Obama administration.

Finally, establishment of the interagency White House work group provides assurance that, at least until 2012, the Corps of Engineers will not have exclusive federal authority over coastal policy.

In summary, I am pleased with the tone and substance of the White House coastal ‘travel guide.’ The brevity of this document belies its importance.

*Founding editor (leonardbahr@gmail.com)

**Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Environmental Defense Fund, Gulf Restoration Network, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.

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  1. Aaron Viles says:

    Hey Len,

    Nice post. I agree with your take on the value of the federal working group’s assessment. Of course, road maps are only valuable if followed. Now it’s critical we stay engaged and keep the feds & the state on the road.

    One point though, this roadmap was not the subject of the public hearing at the Audubon Aquarium. That was the ocean policy task force hearing on a federal coast & ocean policy and marine spatial planning guidance. That’s the initiative that has recreational fishing advocates up in arms. A lot of agency overlap in the leadership of the two entities, and I think the public comments were taken into consideration for the roadmap as well.

    • Thanks, Aaron. I admit to being confused about the distinction between the CEQ Ocean Policy Task Force and the Gulf Coast Working Group. It’s hard for me to follow this stuff so I can just imagine what it’s like for someone with a less passionate interest!

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