May 2011 Coastal Scuttlebutt
Morganza opening today
The long-anticipated, necessary but painful decision to partially open the Morganza floodway structure has been made and today is apparently the day. In terms of the timing, I was just informed that the air space over the Atchafalaya Basin has not been restricted yet, in anticipation of a flock of small planes expected to be seeking aerial photos.
I find the accompanying cartoon on the Morganza decision by Steve Kelley from today’s The Times-Picayune cute but somewhat unfair to the Corps of Engineers in general and to Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh in particular. ‘Dithering’ seems like an inappropriate term for anyone faced with choosing the lesser of two evils, sacrificing the homes of one group to save those of a larger group.
The many accounts of the expected impacts of this decision include an article by Will Sentell in The Advocate and another by Mark Schleifstein in The-Times-Picayune. The Mississppi River Commission approved this decision and it’s noteworthy that among the commissioners who gave their collective blessing to open Morganza for the first time since 1973 is a native of south Louisiana.
As noted in The Daily Comet, Clifford Smith is the only commissioner with a personal stake in the decision. His roots and home and friends and family are in Terrebonne Parish and subject to flooding from the spillway opening, as shown in the diagrams in Sentell’s and Schleifstein’s articles.
Flood marker update
Yesterday I proposed the installation of a network of 2011 flood markers throughout south Louisiana, to remind residents and visitors of flood risk from the north. I proposed doing this once the flood waters have receded, but before the brown high water stains have disappeared from trees and buildings and bridge abutments.
I cited the failure to install Katrina flood markers as an example of dropping the ball in terms of recording an important coastal flood event. A coastal colleague and corps official Dr. Susan Ivester Rees emailed to inform me that, at least in parts of Mississippi, Katrina flood markers are in place. Here’s her message:
Sorry Len, the folks at Bay St. Louis beat you to the punch. Will send you photos of the surge markers they put on the MS Hwy 603 I-10 interchange.
Good for them, now what about in Louisiana?
Here comes the water
It occurs to me that by August 2011, when river water levels will presumably have receded to normal levels and hurricane season approaches its maximum threat, the impacts of the 2011 river flood will be as significant as the effects of Katrina in 2005 and Macondo in 2010.
In 2006 I led an unsuccessful campaign to convince the powers that be in the Nagin Administration to support the installation of Katrina flood markers around New Orleans to remind residents and visitors of their flood risk from the south…the Gulf of Mexico. I still support that concept.
On my way to the JazzFest in April I noted that Katrina brown watermarks are still obvious about 7 feet above ground level on the concrete pillars supporting the I-10 overpass where it crosses over the western end of City Park Avenue and the eastern end of Metairie Road.
If in retrospect the 2011 river floods prove of equivalent significance to Katrina, I now propose the installation of a network of 2011 flood markers throughout south Louisiana, to remind residents and visitors of flood risk from the north…the Mississippi River watershed.
What say you, Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte, BR Mayor Kip Holden and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu?
Landrieu fights to save tax subsidies for the oil industry, despite huge national debt
Yesterday I paid over four bucks/gallon for enough gasoline to get me to New Orleans and back to hear my daughter Emilie describe to her UNO professor her results from a design project in urban planning. Unfortunately I didn’t have the option to ride a train there and back, which would have allowed me to reduce my carbon footprint and work on LaCoastPost.
Today, as reported in NPR’s Morning Edition, representatives of Exxon Mobil, BP America, Chevron and other major oil companies will testify in DC to a senate committee on why they should continue to get billions in tax subsidies. This hearing coincides with soaring gas prices (and industry profits), while Capitol rugs are being turned over to find loose change to balance the national budget.
Gerard Shields reported in today’s The Advocate and Ryan Grim reported in HuffingtonPost, that our Senator Mary Landrieu will filibuster against her own party to defend these subsidies. I’ve known and supported Mary Landrieu for many years, while she was State Treasurer, during her first term as US Senator (when Emilie worked as an intern in her DC office), during her campaign for re-election and since.
Mary has worked very hard for Louisiana (as has her brother Mitch, now trying to restore rationality to the administration of New Orleans). She deserves great credit for fighting for a new source of funding for coastal restoration. In addition, I’m friends with some of her staffers, past and present.
That being said, I think Mary is dead wrong to fight against the elimination of subsidies that are unfair to taxpayers and that delay the development of a sustainable national energy policy. Early laps in her race for a third term as US Senator are well underway and she hears Bobby Jindal’s footsteps behind her on the political track…presumably running for a second term as governor but actually hoping to replace her in the Senate.
Mary has clearly made the political calculation that re-election as the lone state-wide Democrat in Louisiana will require loyally carrying the water for her oil and gas contributors, no matter the long term coastal consequences.
Perspective on the river flood
I call your attention to an opinion column in today’s The Times-Picayune by John Barry on the unfolding crisis surrounding the historic flood levels of the hugely engorged Mississippi River, its tributaries, such as the Yazoo and its sole remaining distributaries, the Atchafalaya and lower Miss outlets. Mr. Barry is as qualified as anyone alive to provide perspective of the incident. Read his column.
Question for the Corps: “What about trapping river sediments from the flood?” Answer: “Chirp, chirp.”
My long-term coastal colleagues Paul Kemp and John Day wrote a provocative essay posted today on CNN.com. They call attention to the increasing obsolescence of the flood protection system for the lower Mississippi River basin in light of global climate change and the need to totally rethink river management.
Drs. Kemp and Day echo my frustration with the eerie sound of crickets by the corps with respect to any discussion of the tragic loss of sediments during this event. Here’s a quote:
…consider this: Like the Bonnet Carré Spillway, the rest of the Mississippi River flood control system dates from the early 20th century, and so do the attitudes and assumptions about its operation. It’s not the early 20th century anymore, and change is sorely needed.
A final consequence is that, except for the sand and mud that enters the Atchafalaya River, the massive sediment load carried by this once-in-a-generation flood will be lost to the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and much of it will have to be dredged at great expense out of navigation channels. This, at a time when sediment is desperately needed to prevent the further ecological collapse and loss of the Mississippi River Delta’s swamps and marshes we depend upon for seafood and protection from hurricane surges.
New Orleans levees and the flood
Jed Horne wrote a commentary posted in TheDailyBeast.com on May 11 comparing the impacts on New Orleans of the 2011 flood with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He focuses specifically on the massive river levees, as distinct from the canal levees that failed.
Bonnet Carre opening well worth seeing
Today’s The Times-Picayune carries an article about the Bonnet Carre spillway, which was partly opened yesterday, allowing a large burst of river water to flow east into Lake Pontchartrain. The article features a series of photos and directions on how best to view the historic event, short of chartering a floatplane. If my daughter were still a middle or high school student I’d encourage her to play hooky like the student shown here!
Making a point on NPR about the river floods
Yesterday on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan interviewed Jim Pogue, public information officer with the Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers, about coping with Project Flood, corps-speak for the all time record high river stages at key locations along the lower Mississippi River. I was lucky enough to be the first to call into the show and I asked Mr. Pogue why no one with the corps is talking about the unbelievable load of sediment that is desperately needed to save America’s Delta is being permanently wasted, washing off of the continental shelf during this extended event. I was hoping that he would react to my implication that the corps could have been made preparations to capture this resource. If you’re interested in hearing his response to my comments, click here to listen to the interview or read the full transcript.
How best to spend money from BP: comments in noladefender.com
Yesterday an opinion piece by yours truly ran in the popular New Orleans blog noladefender.com. I proposed two specific uses for the $100 million BP Bucks that will soon be sent to the state as an early down payment on the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. A slightly modified version of the piece will also be posted here, in hopes that someone with policy authority might actually read it.
Mississippi mouth misnamed
On NPR’s Morning Edition today Greg Allen describes the impacts of the record flux of two million cubic feet per second (cfs) of water, sediment (and trees) in the Mississippi River as it approaches Memphis. Two million cfs was said to be sufficient to inundate a standard football field 44 feet deep in a single second.
This ‘flood pig’ will continue its progress through the ‘river python’ toward the so-called river mouth below New Orleans. Whoever the geographer was who euphemistically named the deltaic business end of a river its mouth, rather than its anus, was off base.
I was very glad to hear the following quote by the reporter:
One reason farmland near the Mississippi is so productive is precisely because it’s received regular flooding from the river.
This is the first media acknowledgment I’m aware of (other than here) that mentions the long term benefits as well as short term costs of river flood years, especially the benefits of diverting river water during historic river flood periods.
Local authorities quoted include my coastal colleagues Craig Colten, geographer at LSU, and John Lopez, geologist with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Colten describes the high stakes public relations balancing act that the corps undergoes during each flood event:
“Whenever you build structures to handle floods, you’re walking that fine line between offering protection and failing to provide protection.” The Corps, Colten says, “is going to be a lightning rod for any either failures, or even successes, that on a rare occasion cause damage.”
Lopez says that the lake will be (temporarily) harmed by the huge influx of river water:
“The blooms can lead to low oxygen-anoxia or hypoxia in the lake,” says Lopez. “There have been times when there has been some relatively minor fish kills.”
He didn’t mention that Lake Pontchartrain inevitably becomes more productive during the years following each opening.
Estuarine ecosystems, including Lake Pontchartrain, are classically invigorated by periodic stresses including tidal exchanges, storm events, wide changes in salinity and infusions of sediments and nutrients from upstream runoff.
I’d compare this kind of beneficial stress to the impact on the human body of periodic vigorous workouts vs. a continuous couch potato existence.
Drilling moratorium job impacts have been hyped beyond belief
David Hammer reported in today’s The Times-Picayune that the number of employees whose jobs were displaced because of the temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is far below the sky is falling predictions of elected state officials, the beneficiaries of huge campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, oil industry pr flacks and conservative economists, including oft quoted LSU Professor Emeritus Loren Scott.
Jindal releases his birth certificate just before Mother’s Day – and the 2012 presidential campaign
I’m relieved to note that Bobby Jindal has cleared the way for his potential road to the White House with the preemptive release of a photocopy of his Louisiana birth certificate. It was just a matter of time before a left wing counterpart to Orly Taitz would have cast doubts on the legitimacy of his birth on US soil.
Under a pending Jindal-backed Louisiana bill, not releasing his proof of Louisiana birth could have prevented the country…and especially the residents of the other coastal states…from getting to know him like we do in Louisiana. For example, these folks will doubtless be reassured to learn that climate change isn’t real and that sea level rise isn’t really a problem for Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston or Miami.
Contrasting editorials on effects of offshore drilling…NY Times vs Times-Pic
The New York Times carried a very interesting editorial on April 6. Here are key quotes:
As President Obama observed in a March 30 address on energy issues, drilling alone cannot possibly ensure energy independence in a country that uses one-quarter of the world’s oil while owning only 2 percent of its reserves. Nor can it lower prices, except at the margins. Only coordinated measures — greater auto efficiency, alternative fuels, improved mass transit — can address these issues.
Still the oil industry and its political allies persist in their fantasies. On Thursday, the House passed the first of three bills that will require the Interior Department to accelerate drilling permits without proper environmental or engineering reviews…The bills would make regulation of offshore drilling even weaker than it was before the spill. They would also do almost nothing to solve the problems of $4-a-gallon gas.
Here’s the hard truth: Prices are set on the world market by the major producers, OPEC in particular. Even countries that produce more oil than they need, like Canada, have little leverage. Canada’s prices track ours.
Compare the thoughts expressed in that column with today’s editorial on offshore lease sales and drilling carried in The Times-Picayune. I’m particularly struck by one sentence:
…completing the lease sales this year would not jeopardize safety. On the other hand, halting the lease sales — even if only for a year — would lead to a drop in exploratory drilling and oil production down the road, hurting the livelihoods of many Gulf residents and the nation’s goals to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
The argument that the Louisiana economy is heavily dependent at present on offshore drilling is plausible but the argument that our dependence on imported oil will be reduced by following the Drill Baby, Drill mentality is laughable.
Editorial mentions one small positive effect of river flooding
The Mother’s Day edition of The Times-Picayune is running another editorial that includes the only mention I’ve seen by the media…save here in LaCoastPost…that some good could come of opening the Bonnet Carre and Morganza spillways to deal with the highest flow volume in the river since 1927. Here it is:
Past spillway openings have done little long-lasting damage. There are even some indications that previous spillway openings helped the lake by depositing sediment on the bottom, repairing damage done by shell dredging before it was banned. The corps also has a detailed environmental monitoring plan for the lake and will track water quality, dissolved oxygen and sediment.
On the other hand, a quote from the local key corps official in Louisiana hints that the corps remains ambiguous about the relative risk of riverine flooding vs. hurricane risk from the gulf.
“Public safety is our top priority,” said Col. Ed Fleming, commander of the New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers, “and the public safety in front of our face is a riverine flood.”
In today’s The Advocate, Amy Wold quotes experts on the river levee system in Louisiana who say that river levee failure, although low, is not guaranteed. Forget the Ten Commandments. The following quote from Wold’s piece that should be posted in every court house, post office, city hall and school in south Louisiana:
The American Society of Civil Engineers produced a brochure called “So, you live behind a levee: What you should know to protect your home and loved ones from floods,” that explained, “Levees reduce the risk of flooding. But no levee system can eliminate all flood risk.”
Two separate reports, each with graphics, in today’s The Advocate, here and here, predict that the probable opening of the Morganza spillway could produce 25 foot water level rise in St. Mary and Terrebonne Parishes.
The real cost of coastal damage
While we wait anxiously for the river crest barreling our way and expected to reach Memphis on Wednesday, here’s some reading to distract you.
Bill Nuttle, my coastal Canadian comrade, kindly sent me the link to this important paper on how the global market fails to recognize the real economic value of the Gulf of Mexico and therefore can’t acknowledge the actual cost of Macondo. This paper, by freelance science writer Brandon Keim in Wired.com, cites the work of my former LSU colleague Robert Costanza, director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University.
This paper gets a serious thumbs up. If only it were read by the local economists, who Costanza always made uncomfortable when he lived here.
Morganza flood projections released by Corps
In recent posts I’ve been decrying what appears to be a monumental lost opportunity to document the environmental impacts of the record river levels approaching south Louisiana in a few days. This is in no way intended to minimize the economic impacts of those many residents who will suffer serious flood damage as a consequence of the confluence of natural and human-caused problems.
In today’s The Times-Picayune Mark Schleifstein reported that the probable opening of the Morganza spillway in a few days could cause serious flooding in a number of communities, from St. Francisville to Houma. This is with a 50% opening. Read the article to see a computer-generated map of projected flood levels from the Corps.
Question: What will we learn from the spillway openings?
Mark Schleifstein reported in today’s The Times-Picayune that, as expected, the US Army Corps of Engineers will begin to open the Bonnet Carre spillway structure in three days and probably the Morganza spillway in another week. Once again I call attention to the outstanding graphic that accompanies this article.
Scroll down for my previous comments about the unique experience of opening both the Bonnet Carre and Morganza spillways simultaneously during the exceptionally high flood stages of the Mighty Mississippi. I remain strongly concerned that the corps will miss this unique opportunity to learn important information that would be critical for the development of alternative river management policy.
I would call for extensive data collection before and after opening the structures, including aerial imagery, LIDAR surveys and synoptic water samples to quantify the fate and effects of the huge amounts of mineral sediments and dissolved nitrates that will be released into the delta.
No mention has been made in any of the news accounts of measuring the effects of operating the structures, other than on river levels. Missing this opportunity will be a serious mistake.
Lobbying power promotes enhanced offshore drilling and keeps government subsidies for the most profitable companies in history
Jonathan Tilove reported in The Times-Picayune on a House bill passed yesterday that would speed the issuance of drilling permits in the gulf. On a related subject, Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel reported in today’s HuffingtonPost that the members of congress supporting oil friendly legislation received almost $9 million in campaign contributions. All Louisiana’s congressmen, even Democrat Cedric Richmond, fell in line with their colleagues in voting to encourage offshore drilling depite the lessons of Macondo.
As an example of largesse Rep. Jeff Landry (R-New Iberia) received more than $150,000. He and Steve Scalise (R-Metairie) are among the recipients of big oil bucks who oppose any legislation to promote alternative energy or to reduce carbon emissions and who shamelessly call for reducing regulations on the most profitable companies in history, including Exxon-Mobil.
Giant experiment on gulf hypoxia may go unheeded
In today’s The Times-Picayune Mark Schleifstein described imminent plans by the Corps of Engineers to open both the Morganza and the Bonnet Carre spillways to reduce pressure on river levees south of the Old River Control Structure. This emergency action represents much more than a practical measure to prevent the flooding of New Orleans and other population centers. It also amounts to a river diversion experiment of unprecedented scale…an unplanned experiment that would be of great information value…and a huge tragedy not to document while it’s happening.
Morganza has been opened only once before, during exceptionally high flood conditions in the Spring of 1973, several months before I moved to Louisiana and twelve years before the dead zone (gulf hypoxia) was first measured in 1985.
According to the accompanying fine graphic from Dan Swenson with The Times-Picayune, the combined Morganza and Bonnet Carre spillway openings will divert a maximum flow of about 625,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), 25.5% % of the total combined peak Atchafalaya/Mississippi River flow of 2.45 million cfs.
All of this water will ultimately find its way to the gulf but this year over a quarter of the flow will be released far upriver and right through the heart of America’s Delta. That hasn’t happened since the time described by Mark Twain and later by Percy Viosca, when the river flowed free, nourishing and sustaining the most dynamic and productive landscape in North America.
In addition to mud for which the delta now starves, this huge pulse of river water will be carrying a high ‘dose’ of dissolved inorganic fertilizer washed off of corn fields in the Midwest, especially nitrogen that fuels the gulf dead zone most years when all of the river water is shunted directly into the gulf.
This year will be unique, in that much of the Spring pulse of river water will flow through and mixed up with water already in the delta. As a result of this processing, I predict that the hypoxic zone will be smaller than usual this Summer.
Over the years the Corps of Engineers has shown very little interest in water quality issues in general or gulf hypoxia in particular. Nevertheless, I hereby urge General Michael Walsh, Commander of the Mississippi River Division, to recognize the fortuitous and extremely rare opportunity to evaluate the environmental impacts of the spillway openings next week.
The chance to gain critical knowledge about the impacts of river diversions on a massive scale would be a terrible thing to waste, General.
High stakes chess match between the corps and the Mighty Mississippi
A.G. Sulzberger and John Schwartz reported in today’s The New York Times on what I see as a chess game currently being played out over a period of weeks by the politically sensitive US Army Corps of Engineers against a coldly dispassionate and implacable opponent, the swollen Mississippi River. The corps black team reminds me of a chess master playing defensively in an extremely high stakes match against an aggressive white opponent, whose moves are based purely on hydraulic principles, i.e., physics.
The game board represents the huge watershed of the Mississippi River and the corps weighs the costs and benefits of sacrificing various pieces distributed around the 64 square battleground. Additional precipitation adds an element of randomness that can confound even the best laid strategic game plan.
More Mississippi River levees may be blown
With respect to the ongoing river v. corps chess match, Jacob McClelland reported today on NPR’s Morning Edition on the levee demolition on the west bank of the Mississippi River at Bird’s Point in Missouri, which has flooded 130,000 acres of farmland but apparently saved the river city of Cairo, Illinois on the east bank.
Levee demolition at other sites is under consideration. Meanwhile a group of Missouri farmers have now filed a class action lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers for the way the demolition was carried out.
Amy Wold reported in today’s The Advocate that the river crest in Baton Rouge is now expected to peak at 47.5 feet on May 21, exceeding the all time record of 47.28 feet set during the great flood of 1927.
New study shows 1.8 million coastal homes at risk from hurricanes
An AP story in today’s The Times-Picayune cites a study showing that almost two million homes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Of those, two thirds of the structures at risk from hurricane surge and winds are outside of FEMA flood risk zones.
Mississippi River Levee blown in Missouri
An AP story by Cain Burdeau and Maria Sudekum Fisher in today’s HuffingtonPost describes the demolition Monday night of about 11,000 feet of Mississippi River levee at Bird’s Point Missouri, under orders by Major General Michael J. Walsh, Commander of the Mississippi River Division of the Corps of Engineers. Another Ap story by Jim Salter and Jim Suhr was carried in today’s Washington Post, shedding more light on this historic event.
The action has released about 550,000 cubic feet per second of river water, flooding 130,000 acres of farmland with silt-laden water, so as to reduce hydraulic pressure on levees protecting the residents of Cairo, Illinois.
Missouri farmers whose land is going underwater during the planting season have strongly opposed this decision, some predicting that their property will be permanently destroyed by burial under as much as six to ten feet of sand.
Permanent implies a very long time. I’m not an agriculture expert but I strongly doubt such claims, since the land that has been under till during the last century was formerly inundated on a regular basis.
General Walsh deserves credit for what is considered a controversial decision…but there is another side to this story.
The Corps has for several weeks been considering opening the Bonnet Carre floodway upriver from New Orleans, which was last opened in 2008. The AP article notes that the Corps is also considering opening the Morganza Floodway, upriver from Baton Rouge, which has been used only once (in 1973) since its construction in 1954.
In today’s The Advocate Amy Wold describes preparations underway in Baton Rouge to add sand bags to low spots in the levee, for a river crest that could surpass the all time record in 1927.
I’ve yet to see a single word in the press about anything but negative effects of turning the river loose. Neither have I seen a word about the highly important coastal; implications of releasing river water upstream from the gulf. So far I have been alone in describing the levee demolition as having an upside. Look for a feature post on this issue soon.
Obama kills Osama!
Ordinarily I can connect almost everything that happens in the world to coastal issues in general and south Louisiana in particular. Nevertheless at the moment I’m at something of a loss to describe the coastal significance of the timely demise of Osama Bin Laden, other than the fact that his remains are now feeding the fishes and crabs in whatever coastal location in which his disgusting remains were dumped.
Approaching high river crest dramatizes need for river spillways
During the past week I’ve been commenting on the implications for coastal Louisiana of the consideration by Corps of Engineers General Michael Walsh to dynamite a mile-long section of levee just below the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, in order to minimize the number of short term flood victims. As I write this, the decision is still pending.
My point is to ask why the Corps continues to ignore the opportunity presented by the approaching flood crest to reduce the number of long term flood victims down here at the river mouth. There is a curious disconnect between the debate over short term levee destruction to save people now and using exactly the same strategy to bolster natural long term protection for residents of south Louisiana, using river spillways not just for emergencies but periodically for short periods under particularly high river conditions..like May 2011.
The media continues to ignore this concept. Thus I read with great interest a column in today’s The Times-Picayune by James Gill on an old controversy about compensating owners of landscape expropriated by the Orleans Levee Board back in the twenties to create the Bohemia Spillway.
Bohemia was a river relief valve created in 1924, long before anyone realized that south Louisiana would be dramatically shrinking and sinking in the future.
It’s very sad that controversy still continues (90-some years after the fact) over fair compensation for property owners in Plaquemines Parish displaced by the creation of a river spillway. This does not bode well for public acceptance of the urgent need today to better manage the river and to periodically divert massive volumes of river water in Plaquemines Parish. Such a far thinking river management policy will raise strong objections from some locals, including Parish Prez Billy Nungesser. In other words it would require strong leadership on the part of Billy’s buddy, Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Brown recluse spiders headed north from climate change?
An article in sciencedaily.com reports that a small but dangerous resident of the southeastern US, including Louisiana may be headed as far north as Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. This prediction is based on pedicted habitat changes resulting from climate change. The only person I ever met who was a victim of the bite of this little critter was former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin.