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MRGO damage repair plan projects resemble CWPPMAS stocking stuffers.


by Len Bahr, PhD, Founding editor

CWPPMAS memories

The 2010 Christmas season suggests a trip down a bureaucratic memory lane. When I was a kid Christmas morning involved two classes of gifts: nice but forgettable stocking stuffers…and REAL presents.

Once upon a time I represented two successive Louisiana governors on the federal/state task force overseeing the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA). This program is known by its awkward acronym pronounced Quip’-ra and symbolized by an unimaginative committee-created logo featuring a tacky amalgam of bayou biota and marsh grass, overlaid on a map of Louisiana. The primary role of the CWPPRA Task Force was to approve the expenditure of about $50 million/year* to implement a select group of coastal restoration projects.

Back in the day I achieved notoriety as a vocal curmudgeonly critic of the CWPPRA project selection process, which consisted of an arcane vetting procedure among competing coastal concepts, most of highly questionable merit. In order to make the CWPPRA program appear politically fair and balanced, individual project candidates were scattered like birdshot between the Sabine and Pearl Rivers, irrespective of high priority hot spots.

Winning projects selected by this notoriously non-scientific bartering procedure were inevitably timid, non-controversial…and too limited to effect real change.

Needless to say, my criticism of the only coastal restoration game in town was not warmly embraced. For several years I attempted in vain to ease the tension by sponsoring a CWPPRA-spoofing event in conjunction with the December Task Force meeting. I called this satiric social happening a CWPPMAS Party, an irreverent gathering aimed to poke fun at ourselves and the process we so solemnly employed, drink a beer or three and hand out bogus awards.

No one complained when the CWPPMAS party ended (when I left the Task Force) and CWPPRA continues unchanged as a bureaucratic entitlement program for five federal agencies and the state, with staffers spending countless hours trading credits for competing band aid projects. To this day, I still consider the winners of this contest CWPPMAS stocking stuffers and I long ago tired of paying much attention to the annual list of chosen projects.

The two most popular CWPPRA project categories are known by their respective euphemisms: (1) shoreline protection, i.e., armoring retreating shorelines with limestone; and (2) marsh creation, elevating degraded (sunken) marshes by pumping in sediments from borrow pits dredged in adjacent bays – i.e., robbing Peter to pay Paul.

These feel-good projects are unsustainable. Most scientists agree that, in the long run, the only potentially map changing projects are massive river diversions on the order of 50,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The CWPPRA program has always eschewed such large diversion projects as being too expensive…and politically contentious. The program has instead settled on limited support for small river water diversions, in the range of 1,000 cfs. These are locally beneficial but too small to make much difference in the long run.

MRGO restoration and CWPPRA

The landscape on the east bank of the lower Mississippi River comprises the Pontchartrain Basin, a huge area that has suffered, like its west bank half of the Mississippi River delta, from years of river mismanagement and other human-caused impacts. Perhaps one third of the long term Pontchartrain damage was caused directly by dredging the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in the 1960s and indirectly by operating and maintaining the channel during the last half century.

So extensive is the damage caused by the MRGO that if the Pontchartrain basin were a wrecked motor vehicle an insurance adjustor could reasonably declare it a total loss. Happily we don’t pull the plug on dysfunctional ecosystems like battered Toyotas.

After years of defending the MRGO the US Army Corps of Engineers did an about turn, shut down the channel** and just released an itemized $2.9 billion repair estimate for damages caused by their beloved channel. The corps’ itemized repair estimate for patching up the MRGO-damaged Pontchartrain basin was described in an article by Mark Schleifstein, published on December 16 in The Times-Picayune. The article includes a helpful T-P graphic depiction of the project locations and types, shown here as Figure 1.

Figure 1. The MRGO repair list.

On December 22 The Times-Picayune enthusiastically endorsed the MRGO repair plan in an editorial, in which the only concerns expressed were whether the feds should pay 100% of the repair bill and the specific location for the sole small river diversion near Violet (see below).

After reviewing the repair list I found myself reverting to my (self-appointed) role as coastal critic. The itemized list of ‘Bondo’ projects from the corps of engineers ‘ecosystem repair shop’ includes what I would call CWPPMAS stocking stuffers, dominated by shoreline protection and marsh creation measures.

I don’t question the sincerity of the folks who developed this repair plan and I think highly of Greg Miller with the corps, who likely played a major role. On the other hand I don’t think that implementing each and every element of this $2.9 billion plan would reverse the incredible damage caused by the MRGO channel. Too much pristine wetland and critical ridgeland was either dredged away or has sunk or washed away during the past half century.

Thus, to describe this plan as a comprehensive MRGO restoration plan unfairly misleads the public.

The specific elements of the plan are not individually objectionable but they address separate problems independently, outside of the context of the large scale subsurface geomorphic conditions shown in Figure 2. Restoration planners should resist the impulse to treat symptoms of the coastal ‘disease’ and design plans based on the underlying causes. This would involve a politically-difficult reality check that may require writing off some landscape as unsustainable in the long run.

Figure 2. Diagrams showing subdelta formation of the Pontchartrain basin (top) and depth of holocene (riverine) sediments, which directly influence subsidence rates. The boundaries shown on Figure 1 are indicated on both diagrams.

The MRGO plan basically uses rocks and sediments pumped from local borrow pits to treat damage to the veneer of the Pontchartrain basin caused by the MRGO. This reminds me of the owner of a termite-riddled wooden house who opts for a coat of paint.

The single element about which nearly all scientists see as fundamental to restoring the Pontchartrain Basin is a system of east bank river diversion projects capable of the combined discharge of at least 50,000 cfs, operated periodically on a pulsed basis.

This plan proposes a single small diversion project, to be built in the vicinity of Violet. IMHO, omitting a system of major river diversion projects is the fatal flaw of the plan.

*In retrospect this was pocket change, compared to Governor Jindal’s $360 million sand berm project or the billions of coastal funding dollars either contemplated or being overseen by the Corps of Engineers and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).

**At the direction of Congress.

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  10. I agree with Rich’s last comment. the study (Georgiou et al 2007) for the Violet diversion’s ability to produce isoclines for the oyster reefs in biloxi marsh modelled the diversion’s flow at 15,000 cfs. This plan proposes pulsed flow at 7,000. that’s a lot less river than we need.

  11. I have read the Corps MRGO report and it appears to me that this 2.9 billion dollar boondoggle is just a repackaging of CWPPRA projects. Does not appear that much of any real data was collected or analyzed. It looks like some Planner just took a pen and made a big circle on a map to determine the project area.

    Same goes for the list of projects. Congress told Corps to come up with a plan to restore the damage caused by the MRGO, but what we have is just a basic list of CWPPRA type projects that adds up to some magic number of acres.

    While this report will probably be able to pass through the system and get submitted to Congress because it does something even if it is not well thought out.

    What are chances of Congress giving 2.9 billion for this project? Not likely any time soon.

  12. Rich Goyer says:

    There’s a lot of truth to your somewhat satirical overview of the CWPPRA program. As for the so called new Violet diversion, the landowners in Meraux are definitely not behind the “new ditch” after being misled and thoroughly “burned” by the MRGO. The “Great Wall of St Bernard” is really impressive, and MAY help slowdown westside erosion along its course. As for a comprehensive restoration effort, CWPPRA is certainly “peeing up a rope”, to use the vernacular. Greg Millar is a nice guy, but is again prone to misleading the locals into thinking that a new diversion will lead to isoclines favorable to oyster production in the Biloxi Refuge, FAR away from the big ditch. Too much distance to move the volume of water needed.

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