July 2011 Coastal Scuttlebutt (cont.)
Say it ain’t so, Garret!
The end of July and the onset of August always brings a heightened risk of storms in the gulf. This year a political storm may also be hovering on our coastal horizon.
Only a week after Steve Mathies abruptly resigned his post as the director of Louisiana’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR) I’ve heard a rumor from several knowledgable coastal folks that Garret Graves is contemplating stepping down as Governor Jindal’s coastal advisor. I sincerely hope that this rumor proves false.
The potential back-to-back loss of Louisiana’s top two coastal officials…just as federal funding for serious coastal measures dries up…would further jeopardize the already embattled program to save south Louisiana. Such a vacuum in coastal leadership during a campaign to market the updated master plan for reducing ‘coastal erosion’ would further erode public confidence in coastal protection and restoration.
Although I frequently disagree with Mr. Graves on both philosophical and technical grounds I have never disparaged his coastal-political knowledge base, his rhetorical skills or his dogged efforts to short circuit bureaucratic barriers that preclude meaningful action. In addition, the dictatorial management style and lack of transparency that characterizes the Jindal administration has resulted in a top-down policy structure with no one ready to assume control in a seamless manner.
As reported by Michelle Millhollen in today’s The Advocate, it has become a foregone conclusion that Bobby Jindal will be re-elected in October. Given that reality, I can’t think of anyone with a resume’ comparable to Garret Graves who the governor would be comfortable appointing…unless perhaps my once coastal ally and later nemesis James ‘Randy’ Hanchey* could be talked off of the golf course and out of retirement.
*Member of the Senior Executive Staff of the US Army Corps of Engineers before becoming deputy secretary at the Department of Natural Resources and ruthless coastal power broker who seriously demoralized his ‘troops’ by not gladly suffering those he apparently thought were fools.
Is this the rise of independent coastal science in south Louisiana?
On July 20 I reported that a coalition of three national environmental NGOs has instituted a team of coastal scientists to provide a formal source of independent and objective science and engineering to inform coastal planning in south Louisiana (scroll down).
This group goes by the name Science and Engineering Special Team (SEST) that is chaired by John Day, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at LSU. Yesterday a coastal colleague forwarded the following notice about what sounds like a similar…and perhaps competing effort:
Plans coming together for anti-erosion Water Institute
An executive director for The Water Institute, a proposed nonprofit scientific research entity focused on coastal issues, could be hired by the end of the year, says John Spain, Baton Rouge Area Foundation vice president. BRAF is setting up the basic framework for the institute, which is envisioned as an independent hub for coastal erosion and water management solutions that can be applied throughout the world.
The first few scientists and support staffers may be hired by the end of this year or early 2012, Spain says; the institute could eventually include 300 to 500 scientists, working either permanently onsite or part-time. A location has not been identified.
Spain says the state’s universities have agreed to share their scientists, and SSA Consultants is working on the details of how those relationships would be structured. “Almost without exception, everyone agrees that while a lot of good work is being done in the state today, it’s not very well coordinated,” he says. “If we are successful in creating a neutral playing ground without the politics, based on good science, everybody agrees that is a good idea.”
Early planning drafts indicate a $50 million annual budget, ramping up to between $100 million and $150 million over several years. A 2009 analysis by McKinsey & Co. says the state could create 20,000 to 45,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2029 by leveraging project work, funding and expertise in water management. “While we have a lot more work to do, all the indications a AFP/File) – Angelina Freeman, a coastal scientist for the Environmental Defence Fund, shows her soiled glove after taking a sample of oil at Pass a L’Outre, Louisiana.re that this thing will become a reality,” Spain says. —David Jacobs*
In his message my informant included the following rhetorical question:
What does this announcement say about:
1) LSU; 2) GOCA; 3) OCPR; and 4) the COE’s decision to pull out of the Science and Technology Program at OCPR
Readers are invited to help me find out whether these two groups are: (1) aware of each other; and (2) will coordinate their efforts.
*Staff writer for The Baton Rouge Business Report.
What’s the company line on the bottom line cost of coastal restoration?
Last evening the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities (GOCA) hosted the first of nine regional public meetings scheduled through September 1 (scroll down for dates and locations) to roll out the newest draft version of the state master plan to protect and restore south Louisiana. I was unable to attend but Mark Schleifstein provided an excellent summary of the proceedings in today’s The Times-Picayune.
Schleifstein quoted an introductory remark by an official from the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR):
“The 2012 coastal master plan will pave the way for action,” said Kirk Rhinehart, chief of the office’s planning division. “This will be the first of Louisiana’s coastal plans to outline a series of specific projects for addressing land loss and reducing flood risk.”
These typically optimistic comments led off what apparently became a far less sanguine discussion of a (predictable) list of issues that emerged as critical to the residents and officials of St. Bernard Parish.
These issues, which will doubtless continue to emerge in the eight remaining meetings, are: restoration costs and funding sources; opposition to river diversions; concern about displacement of fishery resources; flood protection (levee size) vs. population size; and hazard mitigation as an alternative to structural flood protection.
Each issue justifies serious discussion in future posts but the twin issues that most caught my eye in Schleifstein’s piece were (A) the huge range in the estimated cost of saving the coast; and (B) the mysterious and elusive sugar daddy who state officials envision as able and willing to pick up the final tab. On July 18, Governor Jindal’s chief coastal advisor Garret Graves reported to the Baton Rouge Press Club that the estimated cost to protect and restore south Louisiana during the next fifty years would be $100 billion. I’ve heard Mr. Graves quote a bottom line cost as high as $150 billion but apparently that figure is now judged unrealistic for the current budget-tightening climate. Graves did not present a breakdown for the $100 billion, nor did he suggest how that kind of money could possibly be raised.
In striking contrast to Graves’ figure, Rhinehart, who is one of his chief lieutenants, told the audience last night that coastal protection and restoration would cost from $20-50 billion. You’d think that Graves would notify his staff about the company line on the bottom line of restoration cost. Throwing around numbers differing by $5o or 100 billion is not likely to build public confidence in the new plan.
Rhinehart apparently acknowledged last evening that the only major source of funding for coastal measures is the anticipated fine against BP for damage from the Macondo well blowout. How ironic, that the largest ecological insult to the gulf of Mexico in history may ultimately provide a windfall for restoring part of the coast. Had Macondo not occurred I can’t imagine what state officials would be telling audiences in these nine public meetings.
On a final note, Schleifstein reported that Mr. Rhinehart publicly acknowledged the obvious but little discussed fact that twenty years of restoration projects to date have failed to even slow, let alone reverse the rate of land loss. Mr. Rhinehart was said to have explained this programmatic failure on the lack of systems-level thinking that has always characterized the coastal restoration program. Coastal scientists have been criticizing the program on this basis since its nception in 1989.
The draft 2012 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan goes public: will it be real or wizardry?
The Governor’s office of Coastal Activities (GOCA) is hosting a series of nine regional public meetings across south Louisiana to unveil an updated draft version of the State Master Plan for Coastal Protection and Restoration. Here’s a paragraph from the GOCA describing the meetings:
The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) has announced a series of regional community meetings to share information about Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan. Over the next few months, we will be developing the draft plan. So now is the time to come offer your ideas and learn about the state’s work. Join us as we make hard choices to secure our coast’s future.
The implicit goal for these meetings is to solicit feedback so that the final version of the plan, which will ultimately be submitted for legislative approval, cannot be challenged as having been developed in secret. This subject was previously broached on February 10, 2010 and I have heard nothing since that time to alleviate my concerns about both the draft plan and the process by which it is being completed. My three primary concerns are that the draft plan…
1) is being completed in the absence of serious involvement by highly respected coastal scientists;
2) it will apparently lack site specific details, including maps showing projected changes to the current coastal footprint;
3) it is ultimately based on a so-called prioritization tool, a highly questionable computer algorithm by which all proposed projects will be tested and compared for their relative effectiveness and significance. This reminds me of the Wizard of Oz pulling levers behind the curtains to assure the public that all is well.
Another concern is that, after having participated in hundreds of similar coastal public meetings during the past two decades, I’m very curious about the evaluation and weighting of public input, e.g., will strong local opposition to river diversion projects be dispositive?
At any rate, don’t take my word for it. Learn more about the master plan by attending one or more of the meetings at these dates and locations (except for August 10, each meeting commences with an open house at 5:00 PM).
Thursday July 28: St. Bernard Parish Council Chambers?8201 W Judge Perez Dr., Chalmette;
Tuesday August 9: Larose Civic Center?307 East 5th St., Larose, LA;
Wednesday August 10: Ward 7 Community Center?5006 La. 56, Chauvin ?(6:00pm open house ?7:00pm meeting);
Thursday August 11: Morgan City Auditorium?728 Myrtle Street, Morgan City;
Tuesday August 23: Vermilion Parish Library, Abbeville Branch?405 E Saint Victor St., Abbeville;
Wednesday August 24: Belle Chasse Auditorium?8398 Hwy. 23, Belle Chasse;
Tuesday August 30: St Tammany Parish Public Library, Slidell Branch?555 Robert Blvd., Slidell;
Wednesday August 31: Lake Charles Civic Center, Contraband Room?900 Lakeshore Drive, Lake Charles;
Thursday September 1: Westbank Regional Public Library?2751 Manhattan Blvd., Harvey.
New Orleans among most threatened cities in the country
Mark Schleifstein reported in today’s The Times-Picayune that a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lists New Orleans as exemplary of American cities considered extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change through the 21st century. The report focuses on water issues, especially declining freshwater and encroaching saltwater.
The cities described in the report include: Boston, MA; Chicago, IL, Homer, AK; Los Angeles, CA; Miami, FL; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Norfolk, VA; Phoenix, AZ; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; and St. Louis, MO.
This list is not intended to be representative and is not inclusive. For example, I’m writing this post from the vicinitty of my hometown of Baltimore, which is not listed, but should be, as should nearby Washington, DC.
The vulnerability of New Orleans to climate change effects comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the science, which clearly doesn’t include most lawmakers in Baton Rouge. Maybe that’s because, as shown in the Times-Picayune graphic, Louisiana’s Capital City is expected to stay above water at least throughout the century.
Environmental regulations and conservation targeted for budget cuts
Lucia Graves reported yesterday in Huffington Post that influential GOP members of the House of Representatives have targeted the FY 2012 budgets for EPA and the Department of Interior as ideal places to cut wasteful and abusive environmental regulations.
The bill would cut 21.1% ($1.5 billion) and 7% ($715 million) from current funding for the EPA and the Department of Interior, respectively.
Here’s a key quote:
The Interior and Environmental Protection Agency spending bill for fiscal year 2012 contains policy riders added by panel Republicans to thwart White House-backed initiatives on everything from the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to conservation efforts in the Grand Canyon. It would halt new regulations on mountaintop removal mining and prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing new species under the Endangered Species Act.
I wonder whether the GOP house members from gulf coast states (including our very own Alexander, Boustany, Cassidy, Fleming, Landry and Scalise) support their colleagues’ plan to cut over one fifth of next year’s budget from the EPA, the very agency that is in charge of the gulf coast ecosystem restoration program.
Having it both ways
During the throes of the largest underwater oil gusher in history in May 2010, the Obama administration issued a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling until the cause of the blowout was understood and a repetition considered highly unlikely. This drilling hiatus unleashed a torrent of outrage from state officials who screamed bloody murder that the moratorium was overkill, that big oil would leave the gulf forever, that the economic sky was falling and that an imminent job loss would ruin the state.
The moratorium-induced job loss never happened, of course but I just heard an announcement on Baton Rouge NPR affiliate WRKF-FM that a credible new study concludes that during the past five years Louisiana was second in the nation in terms of job creation (after Texas). The energy industry’s favorite economist, Dr. Loren Scott, was quoted, praising the Louisiana Department of Economic Development for this wonderful news. Wouldn’t you know, Scott is the same economic expert who predicted that the drilling moratorium would destroy Louisiana jobs forever. How can someone with economic predictions so blatantly bogus continue to be frequently quoted on the air?
Gulf coast senators agree on splitting BP fine
An editorial in today’s The Times-Picayune complimented nine of the ten gulf coast senators for reaching an agreement on an equitable split for however much money the federal government ultimately imposes on BP for oil-related damage from the Macondo well blowout. The ultimate fine is estimated at from $5 to 20 billion.
Under the draft RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act of 2011, which must also pass the House in a similar form, the five states will share 35%, Louisiana will receive 30%, the feds will use 30% for ecosystem restoration, with 5% used to fund a coastal science program.
If I understand this formula, Louisiana would get 37% of the total fine, or from $1.85 to 7.4 billion but the state would benefit from 72% of the total, or from $3.6 to 14.4 billion.
With respect to these numbers remember two things: (1) this fine is currently the only serious potential funding source on the horizon to restore the coast; and (2) the dollar amounts range from only 3.6 to 14.4% of the $100 billion figure that the governor’s office constantly cites as the minimum cost to protect and restore the Louisiana coast.
Obviously, Louisiana’s should try to get the biggest bang for its share of the BP bucks. That means spending the dollars on the basis of good science. Unfortunately our record is dismal on that score. Check out this post on spending BP bucks by yours truly in NOLA defender.com.
Interest growing in New Orleans-Baton Rouge rail transit
Swede White reported today on Baton Rouge’s NPR affiliate WRKF-FM on a growing interest in developing passenger rail service between Houston and Atlanta, specifically between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This subject was formally presented in a professionally developed plan called Getting From Here to There. Discussion of gulf coast regional rail transit, which has huge coastal implications, seems to be rapidly expanding, despite the inexplicable disinterest of Governor Jindal.
The price tag for this enterprise is estimated at $52.8 million, of which the largest piece is the acquisition of real estate. I continue to wonder why the use of the median strip of the I-10 corridor couldn’t be used for free.
Comments sought on coastal plan
Yesterday The Advocate carried an article by Amy Wold about what appear to be desperate attempts to resuscitate two critical barrier shoreline projects along the Barataria Basin that have languished for various reasons since 2007. These projects include bolstering the Caminada headlands west of Grand Isle and the former Shell Island beach on the eastern end of the basin.
First I must comment on the project description, as shown in the article. Given the exigencies and crudeness of dredging and conveying a large volume of sand to a distant location and the fact that nature immediately begins redistributing the sand as soon as it is placed, I can’t resist commenting on the laughable level of precision of the projected size of these projects. Here are the key quotes from Wold’s article:
(The Caminada Headlands project)…would create and restore about 880 acres of beaches and dunes, and 1,186 acres of marsh…
At Shell Island…The dunes would be built to six feet high and 189 feet wide, include 317 acres of shoreline and dune area, and 466 acres of marsh.
Using precise numbers detracts from the credibility of a project, which students of ecological engineering should learn in school. Projecting the construction of 900 ares of beach and dunes, 1,200 acres of marsh…200 ft width, 300 acres of shoreline and dune area and 450 acres of marsh would have been reasonable metrics that would be very difficult to challenge..and that would quickly change at any rate.
The bureaucratic quicksand in which these projects are mired was described here on July 6. During the four years since the projects were originally designed inflation has elevated their combined cost from $242 to 446 million, which requires another round of ‘reselling’ the concept and its specific design details.
This endless cycle of inaction demonstrates the dire dysfunctionality of the program to restore the coastal ecosystem of Louisiana. The restoration program is about as broken as the coast that desperately needs restoring.
Neither the State of Louisiana nor the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers can be faulted for this Catch 22 situation. Based on Wold’s article they have apparently endeavored to find a way through the Catch 22 situation that prevents authorized projects from being constructed until they are far too expensive to afford. This includes a search to find supplementary funding sources on the part of the state.
Wold’s article primarily describes one of the bureaucratic boxes that must be checked off in order to proceed with either of them. This box is a requirement that public opinion is solicited about the environmental consequences of spending federal dollars for public works projects.
Public comments are being solicited by The Corps until August 8. Two public meetings are scheduled in order to be able to check off this box. These meetings are scheduled from 6:30 to 8:00 PM on the following dates and locations:
• July 26 at Woodland Plantation, 21997 La. 23, Port Sulphur.
• July 28 at South Lafourche High School, 16911 E. Main St., Galliano.
What remains unclear on these projects however, is the bottom line. Will soliciting formal public input prove to have been just another well-intentioned but futile exercise; i.e., what is the likelihood of sand being moved during 2011?
The coincidental Great Flood, Great Drought and Great Heat Wave of 2011.
Last night I was hard pressed to decide which news item on the PBS News Hour was most depressing: the starving babies in Somalia; the approaching debt default in DC; or the rampaging Norwegian murderer. The record heartland heatwave seemed almost trivial by comparison…but is it?
During the grisly footage and commentary I was struck by the fact that no connection was drawn between the drought, famine and political anarchy in the Horn of Africa with global overpopulation and climate change. Journalists seem to have become overly cautious with respect to noting possible connections among environmental issues…connections that carry controversial political overtones.
For example, throughout the year I’ve noted that the media has mostly avoided connecting climate change with the Great American Flood, the Great American Drought and now the Great American Heatwave. We won’t know until November whether 2011 will also be the year of the Great American Hurricane(s).
Among the people who pontificate passionately on global warming and anthropogenic climate change (GW/ACC), Andrew C. Revkin impresses me as setting a benchmark for unemotional and thoughtful commentary. He’s far from a newcomer at this, having been describing the rising global temperature back in 1988, with a cover story for Discover magazine, long before the term ‘blog’ had been created.
Yesterday Revkin posted this commentary on his blog Dot Earth published by The New York Times. the current heat wave and how it relates to global warming. The post includes a striking video clip showing the Great American Heat wave.The fact that Revkin’s commentaries are carried by The Old Gray Lady is a pretty good sign of its credibility. On April 5, 2010, before the back-to-back flood, drought and heat of 2011,* I listed Revkin among the ten most influential and credible American authorities on GW/ACC.
Just before posting this piece I heard a story on NPR’s Weekend Edition on the connection between global warming and the heat wave. Scott Simon interviewed Dr. Martin Hoerling, a climate dynamics specialist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In my July 8 coastal scuttlebutt I criticized what sounded like an equivocation on the part of Hoerling on a climate change connection with the Louisiana drought.
Having listened to the interview, I apologize to Hoerling and NOAA for having jumped to conclusions. I’m also glad that the media is not totally avoiding this subject as implied above.
*And just 15 days before the Macondo blowout, which can only be indirectly connected to climate change.
Five gulf states may share BP bucks
Advocates of the daunting challenge to preserve the function of south Louisiana can be roughly divided into two camps. Some devote time and energy railing about the lack of action and criticizing the folks in charge. Others advocate working within the system, with the policy folks we have, rather than those we’d like to have.
I sympathize with both views but my impatience with politics, bureaucracy and the rapidly encroaching Gulf of Mexico frequently puts me in the former camp. On the other hand I have many friends in the latter group, who encourage me to call attention to even modest signs of progress.
For example, I’ve been encouraged to note the status of a draft senate bill co-sponsored by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby that would allocate 80% of the ultimate penalty against BP and the other ‘Macondo perps’ to the five gulf states, largely to restore the ecological health of the gulf coast. As noted in nola.com by Times-Picayune reporter Jonathan Tilove, Mary Landrieu’s presentation of the bill yesterday got a favorable reception at a Senate hearing. Also check out this link to video clips from WKRG TV, a Mobile/Pensacola CBS outlet.
Word has it that the bill appears to have a good chance of passing both houses and being signed by President Obama, despite the current budgetary crisis and the fiscal climate in DC that is dominated by anti-spending zealots. Not mentioned in media accounts is the fact that progress of the draft bill is largely the result of work by the environmental community, specifically a triumvirate of national NGOs, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.
I received the following heads-up about the bill from a colleague who represents one of these groups:
This is not a perfect bill, but it is far, far better than we had any reason to expect, given what the delegations from other gulf states wanted. Boxer managed to help hold the Landrieu bill’s emphasis on restoration for most of money in the final. She plans to mark it up next week. I hope you can put a positive spin on it. We need this money if we are going to have any chance of moving forward before GOMESA in 2017.
For over forty years New Orleans resident Oliver Houck has earned a distinguished reputation as a legal scholar and professor of environmental law at Tulane University. During that time he has become one of Louisiana’s most important and independent coastal advocates. Professor Houck is an iconoclast, particularly known for his candor; he never minces words or disguises ecologically harmful practices with euphemisms.
Professor Houck spends many leisure hours walking and cogitating along the Mississippi River levee and he has written a book called Down on the Batture. I’m not sure about the geographic range of the term batture but in south Louisiana it is used to describe the sometimes wet, sometimes dry zone along a waterbody, especially a river or bayou.
I don’t know whether Houck’s book deals with the complex legal issues involving ownership and public vs. private uses of batture zones but he’s well aware of the coastal implications of these issues. I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out.
Down on the batture was recommended yesterday in The Times-Picayune. I have no doubt that Ollie’s prose will inform and not disappoint.
Yesterday former Louisiana governor (and my first coastal policy employer) Buddy Roemer announced his extremely long shot “Free to lead” campaign for the GOP nomination for president. He’s rented an apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire in the hope of achieving name recognition in this early primary state known for its independent voters. Compare local and national coverage of the announcement. Here’s a notice in The Advocate and here is a notice by Juana Summers in Politico.
LSU research dollars cut
Jordan Blum reported yesterday in The Advocate that the Louisiana Geological Survey faces serious budget cuts. So much for our state recognizing the value of coastal science.
Professor Turner challenges the Morganza-to-the-Gulf project
A trio of coastal scientists in Louisiana share the common experience of having completed their formal academic training at the University of Georgia during the 1970s. This motley coastal crew includes Chris D’Elia (Dean of the LSU School of the Coast); Gene Turner, LSU Distinguished Research Master; and yours truly.
Based on an article by Bruce Alpert in today’s The Times-Picayune, one member of this trio (Turner) distinguished himself yesterday by his testimony at a Washington, DC hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
Dr. Turner assailed the most expensive and controversial coastal protection measure ever proposed in the 20-year history of Louisiana’s Coastal Restoration program…the Morganza-to-the-Gulf project (MTTG). This massive 72-mile $11 billion system of levees and gates is envisioned to literally wall off Terrebonne Parish, impounding thousands of acres of coastal wetlands.
Although MTTG is extremely popular in Houma, it has been criticized by every credible coastal scientist of my acquaintance. The project has frequently been challenged in LaCoastPost, most recently in yesterday’s Coastal Scuttlebutt (scroll down).
Here’s the quote from Alpert’s article that caught my eye:
Turner warned that a new levee system planned for Louisiana’s coast, the largely unfunded Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system, would destroy more wetlands just as a state and federal commitment to a major ecosystem restoration is moving forward.
“The construction of these levees would, essentially, wall off the coast, and cause more wetlands loss,” Turner said. “People are being polite about it, but make no mistake: Wetland restoration will be compromised if these levees are built.”
Turner’s testimony was rebutted by a duo of state officials in the form of Garret Graves, coastal advisor to Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Senator David Vitter, who was Garret’s former boss. Here are the relevant quotes:
Garret Graves, director of the Louisiana Office of Coastal Activities, said the Army Corps of Engineers is on its third evaluation of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf project and “all have drawn the same conclusion: The alignment makes sense.” He also said the state has impaneled a group of scientists and experts from academia and the private sector to consider the possible impacts cited by Turner. It reached the same conclusion that “the project should proceed,” Graves said.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La. also disagreed with Turner’s assessment.
“Morganza will continue to be a top priority in South Louisiana because it will protect a lot of communities and — most important — a lot of people,” Vitter said. “We can build Morganza and simultaneously work to complete coastal restoration projects, many of which have been identified for years. If we don’t get Morganza completed, a catastrophic hurricane could destroy a vital part of the little energy industry left in America.”
During the 40-some years that we have known each other Dr. Turner and I have had many disagreements on technical issues but I’m proud to say that I totally support his comments on the MTTG project. I would like to know the specific names of academic scientists that Mr. Graves claims to support the project…but I understand the reluctance of some critics of this politically popular project to speak up, especially if their paychecks are signed by Bobby Jindal. Pardon my cynicism but scientists employed by A&E consulting firms from the private sector can be enlisted to support virtually anything for a paying client, such as the state of Louisiana.
‘Control’ of coastal science is an oxymoron
In an article published in today’s The Times-Picayune Mark Schleifstein may have helped to rip off the bandage covering up a coastal sore that has festered for as long as Louisiana’s coastal restoration program has existed. This wound that won’t heal is the role of independent science in determining coastal policy.
Schleifstein described a long-standing rift between the state and the Corps of Engineers over control* of the science on which coastal restoration policy should be based.
This conflict recently culminated in the decision by General Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi River Division of the US Amy Corps of Engineers, to pull the plug on the Louisiana Coastal Area Science Technology Office (LCA S&T) that was established in 2007.
This decision, reported here on July 15 (scroll down), did not affect the dirty little secret that policy on Louisiana’s coastal restoration policy continues to remain virtually uninformed by truly independent scientific input. IMHO the absence of politics-free science is particularly problematic as the cost for ecosystem restoration rises and federal funding retreats over the horizon like a mirage.
A series of so-called ‘Science advisory committees’ has been established sequentially by the state and the corps, most with noteworthy goals and naive expectations. I was once a member of the now defunct Framework Development Team (FDT) established during the second term of Gov. Mike Foster. Unfortunately, FDT and its successors have always been token, feel-good bodies lacking real standing any deeper than the thickness of the sheets of paper on which they’ve been described.
These groups have logged many hours of meetings, incurred significant travel expenses and produced reams of recommendations but I’ve never seen evidence of consequential policy decisions influenced by their advice.
Schleifstein’s article includes impressive sounding quotes on the need for independent science, including this one by Garret graves, Governor Jindal’’s coastal advisor:
Graves said the state viewed the science program as an opportunity to build on the expertise of state scientists in coastal restoration issues that could then be used by governments around the world, “instead of paying other people to learn what our scientists already know.”
Nevertheless, I put very little stock in such statements, based on the record of Garret’s boss to ignore and/or discredit credible science. This includes the decision to spend $240 million to construct emergency sand berms last summer, against the advice of both Louisiana and out-of-state coastal scientists. The recent resignation of Dr. Steve Mathies as director of the state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR) only adds to my cynicism.
Now I’m excited to report that the environmental community, as represented by the Environmental Defense Fund, The National Wildlife Federation and The Audubon Society have joined forces to establish and fund an independent Science and Engineering Special Team (SEST), chaired by John W. Day, Professor Emeritus at LSU. Beginning in the next few weeks SEST will produce a series of reports on priority issues and restoration measures that considered fundamental to the coastal restoration program. A feature post on SEST will be published as soon as details become available.
*As though scientific input should be influenced, let alone controlled by agencies.
Cut, Cap and Balance…but not Cap and Trade.
As described this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition, the US House will vote today on the Tea Party-inspired approach to solving the federal budget crisis, using a Cut Cap and Balance plan. For the Congress to vote to refuse paying the ‘car note’ that this same body previously signed up for boggles the mind.
The federal budget showdown and potential economic catastrophe on August 2nd belie the apparent optimism on the part of Governor Jindal’s staff that the bankrupt federal treasury will write Louisiana a big check to save our coast anytime soon.
Yesterday I braved a welcome summer downpour to attend the weekly meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club. Being umbrella-less, I arrived wet to hear Garret Graves, Governor Jindal’s chief coastal advisor, describe the current state of coastal affairs.
Garret’s presentation summarized: (1) why south Louisiana is vital to the national economy; (2) the pre-historic formation of the landscape; (3) the historic decline of that landscape (4) the complicity of the corps of engineers in this change; and (5) why that complicity justifies a $100 billion federal ‘fix.’ During this all-too-familiar litany at one point I closed my eyes and noted that Garret’s speech pattern has come to resemble the distinctive staccato sound bites of his boss.
Be that as it may, I agreed with about 90% of what he said, leaving about 10% with which I differed. In terms of the latter, here’s a list:
1) I do not share Garret’s optimism that the landscape south of I-10 and I-12 could totally be sustained…if only the money were forthcoming.
2) I strongly disagree that the 72-mile Morganza-to-the-Gulf project, which the corps of engineers has priced at $11 billion and on which the state has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars, could and should be completed as designed.
3) I certainly don’t buy the argument that responding to three month’s of gushing oil last summer by spending six months to build 18 miles of what he frankly acknowledged were sacrificial sand berms to intercept the oil was an appropriate way to splurge $240 million.
4) Garret mentioned selling carbon credits as a way to pay for some of the cost of restoring wetlands; yet his boss, and virtually every other elected official in Louisiana, opposes a carbon cap-and-trade system, which would be necessary to establish a market value for that service!
5) He pointed to the recent slow down in the rate of land loss, as shown in the upper graph, as evidence for the success of recent wetland restoration measures. I take little comfort in what looks like a noise level uptick on the curve, or rather ‘downtick.’
6) Finally, Garret’s $100 billion price tag for saving the coast is laughably unrealistic in today’s political climate as symbolized by today’s congressional vote to slash government spending, using Cut Cap and Balance (see the lower graph).
IMHO, a potential $20 billion in BP fines demonstrates that the only realistic source of tens of billions of dollars to address our coastal crisis is the industry that has caused about half of the land loss, the energy industry. That thought was of course not included among Garret’s remarks.
Pile of rocks near the Chandeleur islands taken for granite
Steven Ward wrote an interesting article published in today’s The Advocate about a thirty-five-year quest by a Louisiana amateur coastal archaeologist named George Gelé. This coastal sleuth has been trying to ascertain the origin and purpose of a massive rock pile located near the northern end of the Chandeleur island chain.* Mr. Gelé’s quest has been carried out totally on his own dime.
Because America’s Delta contains no native rocks larger than agates, these foreign stones were obviously placed there by humans. Artifacts collected by diving have been dated to the 1800s, indicating that the site may have been a convenient place to jettison ballast from sailing ships to allow navigation in shallow waters. The location could also have been considered an ideal place to dump rocks to ‘seed’ an artificial reef.
In those pre-GPS and pre-fathometer days there would have been plenty of landmarks present to allow ships to return to the precise location. Since the rock pile was created the surrounding delta landscape has of course long since sunk out of sight.
Although the article doesn’t divulge the specific location of the site, the general area would seem to be ideal for colonization by oysters, mussels, barnacles and other fouling animals. The average salinity would of course have been considerably lower there back in the day, when the river ran free and the delta was healthy.
Based on the verbal description and the photograph of Mr. Gelé holding what I assume is a typical, and amazingly bare, rock from the site, I’m extremely curious why the site has not turned into a massive oyster reef, totally obscuring the bare granite. I agree with Mr. Gelé that the site is sufficiently curious to warrant serious research.
I can envision the collection of definitive information that could be quickly and inexpensively provided by the application of a high tech side-scan sonar package developed by Drs. Harry Roberts and Chuck Wilson at LSU. This system was used effectively to help defend the state against egregious lawsuits filed against the state during the nineties by a few greedy oyster leaseholders. Oh, I almost forgot; the officials in our cash-strapped state don’t appreciate what Louisiana’s world-class coastal scientists are capable of doing.
*Sounds like it may be close to a major site for dredging sand for Governor Jindal’s pricey BP sand dunes.
Forests absorb 1/3rd of carbon emitted by human cultural activities
In the correspondence course on environmental science that I have taught for decades through the LSU Office of Distance Learning I define ‘pollution’ as follows: The active release of harmful byproducts of human cultural activities…not the passive release of metabolites. My definition for example, distinguishes the massive release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuel from the carbon dioxide released during the biological respiration of aerobic organisms. This distinction goes right over the heads of state officials, who claim that the carbon dioxide released from burning coal, oil and gas is no different from or worse than exhalation.
On July 15 Joanna M. Foster reported in The New York Times that a new study just published in Science shows that forests worldwide are more important as a carbon sink than previously recognized. The report concludes that forests sequester about one third of the massive quantity of carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel combustion each year. Here’s a quote:
…the world’s forests absorb 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, or about one-third of the carbon dioxide released through the burning of fossil fuels.
The lead author, Yude Pam, a research forester at the Forest Service, describes the study as the most comprehensive analysis of the global carbon budget to date…the report emphasizes the devastating effects of tropical deforestation and the need to protect trees that perform an enormous global service.
The study shows that tropical forests are more a more effective carbon sink than temperate forests, which implies that coastal forests in Louisiana are somewhere in between. One more reason to restore our dying forested wetlands.
Who’s the brightest bulb in Louisiana’s congressional bunch?
As we all know by now, the clock is ticking toward an August 2 default on the US government paying its outstanding debts for wars, hurricane prediction, flood damage remuneration, coastal restoration…and obligations to Medicare and social security recipients (like me). Meanwhile, Louisiana’s GOP members of the very Congress that incurred these bills are all busily trying to blow off our unpaid light bills and increase future such bills!
A story by Robert Pear in today’s The New York Times specifically cites Louisiana freshman congressman Jeff Landry as an example of the powerful new voice that threatens to force the US to default on its debt for the first time in history. Here’s the quote:
Representative Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican from Louisiana, said, “I don’t believe, if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, that we will default.” Even if the debt ceiling is reached, Mr. Landry said, the government has more than enough revenue coming in each month to pay principal and interest on the debt.
Bruce Alpert and Jonathan Tilove reported in The Times-Picayune that all six Louisiana GOP congressmen have signed onto an effort to oppose government efforts to persuade the public to act in its own interest by using energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. Cedric Richmond, our sole Democrat, is also our only congressman who opposed this bizarre effort.
As a coastal advocate, concerned with reducing our dependence on both foreign and domestic fossil fuel, with accelerating sea level rise, with diminishing federal support for coastal restoration, and with the need to update worn out satellites for hurricane prediction, for example, I’m totally disgusted. These examples of idiocy on the part of Louisiana public officials imply that Congressman Richmond is the brightest bulb in the Louisiana congressional bunch.
Speaking of reducing light bills, in today’s The Advocate Michelle Millhollen describes serious belt tightening in the Jindal administration, largely as the result of an obsessive anti-tax policy, including, e.g., dismantling the progressive Stelly tax reform plan and not renewing the 4 cent cigarette tax.
Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater is quoted as saying that the state is trying to reduce its light bill by turning off the air conditioners in state buildings in the evenings. That’s smart, of course, but it raises the question of whether or not his boss supports the effort of our state GOP delegation to oppose federal government attempts to save energy.
BP oil cleanup reveals native American artifacts at Fourchon
Cain Burdeau wrote an article for the A/P published yesterday in the Daily Comet and today’s The Advocate in which he reports the accidental discovery of ancient artifacts of aboriginal Americans discovered near Port Fourchon. Efforts to remove BP oil from Louisiana headlands led to this important coastal discovery, ironically where one third of American oil and gas comes ashore…both accidentally and on purpose.
Mathies resignation and the Morganza to the Gulf project
Amy Wold reported in today’s The Advocate that, as noted here yesterday, Dr. Steve Mathies resigned his appointed post as executive director of the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR), the virtual seat of state coastal policy and planning (scroll down). I was also correct in assuming that OCPR assistant director Jerome Zeringue would take over the reins of the 137-person quasi-agency.
Although I’m totally sympathetic to Steve’s assertion that he was tired of the daily commute from New Orleans to Baton Rouge I would wager that there’s more to this story, perhaps a philosophical difference of opinion between Mathies and the Jindal administration on critical policy issues. I’m particularly thinking about the governor’s unwavering support for the ill-conceived, environmentally destructive, multi-billion dollar Morganza-to-the-Gulf project (MTTG) that would attempt to wall off the Terrebonne basin with a giant earthen dike.
I don’t know for sure how Steve Mathies feels about MTTG but I suspect that he’s not a huge fan of this project, which is backed by Governor Jindal and politically popular in Houma. On the other hand, the new OCPR director Jerome Zeringue is an unabashed cheerleader of the project, having previously directed the South Terrebonne Levee District, for which MTTG is the Holy Grail.
The governor apparently plans to continue squandering millions of state (and parish) tax dollars constructing parts of this ‘Maginot Line’ levee system, some of which is already in the Gulf of Mexico. I believe that this policy is being undertaken in the vain hope that the federal government will eventually step in and finish the job.
EPA Region 6 sponsors the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP)* directed by Kerry St. Pe.’ MTTG is as important an issue as BTNEP could possibly address. Nevertheless I’m not aware whether EPA or St. Pe’ have ever having taken positions on the project.
I quit attending BTNEP meetings long ago, when it became apparent that the program always avoided addressing controversial and critical issues.
*Once directed by Steve Mathies.
Is a coastal policy shakeup underway and if so what’s going on?
In a story that has so far gone unreported in the primary state media outlets, a major shakeup in coastal policy and planning may be underway, the implications of which are totally unclear at this time.
Yesterday I posted comments on a story by Amy Wold in The Advocate about the meeting on July 13 of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration, during which the commissioners heard comments from Dr. Steve Mathies, executive director of the state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR). In this position, Mathies has arguably been the second most influential coastal policy and planning advisor after Garret Graves, the governor’s chief coastal advisor.
Reliable sources are now reporting that Mathies, a long term coastal colleague, is resigning today from this position, to which he was appointed by Governor Jindal on August 21, 2009.
Mathies has extensive federal, state and private sector experience in Louisiana coastal planning. He worked for the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers, served briefly as Deputy Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources during the first term of Governor Mike Foster, was employed by CH2MHill, a consulting firm with multiple state contracts on coastal projects (including the project to reconnect Bayou Lafourche to the river) and now OCPR. According to the OCPR website, this quasi-agency currently has 138 staff members.
At this time no announcement has been made about Steve’s replacement, so presumably his duties will be overseen by assistant director Jerome Zeringue.
In another major change that may or may not be coincidental, I was notified by a highly placed source that the Louisiana Coastal Area Science and Technology program office (LCA S&T) is being dismantled. This joint federal-state program was initiated to provide technical input on coastal protection and restoration concepts and potential projects. The LCA S&T program office has been directed by Dr. Barbara Kleiss with assistance from Dr. Jim Pahl, representing the corps of engineers and OCPR, respectively.
Here’s the official announcement from Dr. Kleiss to her fellows in the LCA S&T program:
Dear LCA Science Board Members:
It is with a great deal of regret that I have to inform you that the attached letter from Major General Walsh initiating the “orderly shutdown” of the LCA S&T Office was delivered to Garret Graves and the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection today. The S&T Office has been successfully operating for five years now using FY06 and FY07 appropriations, however, these funds are nearly exhausted. Although we received $6.5 million in FY10 federal appropriations, we have been unable to negotiate a new cost share agreement with the State of Louisiana and these unobligated funds are now needed for other Corps of Engineers responsibilities within the Mississippi Valley.
For your information, I have also attached the April letter from MG Walsh notifying the State of Louisiana of a June 30, 2011 deadline for office closure and asking that they express their interest in negotiation by June 1, 2011.
The receipt of this letter was never acknowledged by Mr. Graves, leaving us few options. We will plan to use the next 2.5 months before the end of the fiscal year to wrap up efforts such as the Science Board’s Diversion position paper and the Mississippi River Sediment Budget effort, but at this point, we will not be initiating any new efforts.
I personally have enjoyed working with each of you and deeply appreciate your efforts on behalf of coastal restoration in Louisiana. There is still much that needs to be done, but your dedication to our meetings, your insights, and your friendship have all been very rewarding. I hope that we will be able to find other avenues to stay in touch.
Barb Kleiss, Ph.D., Director, LCA Science and Technology Office, USACE, Mississippi Valley Division
My source commented on this change as follows:
It (the LCA S&T office) was a great concept initially, but neither the State or Corps ever really cared about science support for management and the two parties fell into a contest over cost-sharing, etc.
The simultaneous resignation of Mathies and the demise of LCA S&T would appear to have important implications for the future of south Louisiana; yet apparently the governor’s advisory commission was not informed (at least in public) of the changes.
What’s going on, Garret? Inquiring minds want to know.
Power from the river
Ted Griggs reported in The Advocate that a high-tech turbine to generate electricity has been installed in the Mississippi River adjacent to the Dow Chemical plant, slightly downstream from Baton Rouge on the west bank in Plaquemine. is this the start of something big (and green) for Louisiana?