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August 2011 Coastal Scuttlebutt

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August 14

The cover of what is proving to be a very interesting but very long and overly worshipful book.

EWE demonstrates refreshing candor on his first radio interview since prison

I’m currently wading through the authorized biography by Leo Hunnicutt of one of my five former gubernatorial bosses, Edwin Washington Edwards. As of last night I’ve completed six chapters, or exactly 23%. When I eventually finish this weighty and somewhat tedious tome* I’ll post comments.

On Friday August 12th I listened intently as EWE participated in his first radio interview since being released from federal prison after eight years. The most important governor since Huey P. Long answered questions from the host of the Jim Engster show on Baton Rouge NPR affiliate WRKF-FM.

The only explicitly coastal topic broached during the fifty-some minute interview was the BP blowout. Edwin joined the majority of Louisiana voices who opposed the Obama-imposed moratorium on deepwater drilling. I respectfully disagree with his assessment on that issue but I was proud to find myself agreeing with almost everything else he said…all of which had coastal implications.

Not surprisingly, I have both positive and negative recollections of the four years from 1992-96 that I served as Edwards’ coastal advisor, as the collapse of the coast grew more and more apparent to the scientific community. On the positive side, he left me alone…to make speeches, chair coastal committees and write policy letters on letterhead stationary.

On the negative side he left me alone…never acknowledging the fundamental importance of the multiple unfolding coastal crises. Most telling was my fruitless campaign to inform him about the technical challenges that coastal restoration would entail.

To no avail I begged his official gatekeepers Ben Jeffers, Sid Moreland and Al Donovan…and unofficial spokesfolks like DNR secretary Jack McLanahan, Andrew Martin and Cecil Brown, to persuade the governor to meet privately with a panel of coastal experts that I had recruited to inform him. The panel provided their thoughts to the above folks but not directly to EWE.

Last Friday Edwin Edwards demonstrated to listeners of the Engster interview that he’s still refreshingly candid about politically explosive issues. For example he mentioned oil processing taxes, first proposed by Dave Treen and recently raised by both Foster Campbell and Rob Marioneaux, that could more than balance the state budget. I was amazed that he also expounded on his agnosticism about the existence of an afterlife.

I would personally love to see EWE receive a pardon from President Obama, so that he could challenge Governor Jindal in October. He acknowledged that he’d run, albeit reluctantly, were that unlikely event to transpire in the short time remaining.

On the other hand, like most state politicos with short time horizons, I believe that EWE  fails to understand the fundamental importance of Louisiana’s coast…beyond his lifetime and mine.

*To my utter amazement, on a previous interview with Jim Engster on August 4, long term Louisiana political insider Gus Weill praised Hunnicutt’s Edwards biography as more Pulitzer-worthy than T.Harry Williams biography of Huey Long!

Decapods, from Ernst Haeckel's 1904 work Kunstformen der Natur

August 13

Mudbugs and Maine lobsters are malacostracan cousins

Louisiana’s chief executive seems to believe that crawfish and lobsters were both intelligently designed only 6,000 years ago, about the same time that what is now south Louisiana first began to emerge from the sea. Anyhow, the evolutionary connection between lobsters and crawfish has become newsworthy in a state far to our north.

Yesterday Swede White reported on WRKF-FM that a New York delicatessen will have to change the name of a faux lobster salad that’s been popular for 20 years. The crustacean protein in the salad is mudbug, not lobster. Here’s the entire text of White’s note:

Due to the keen eye of a New Orleans writer, a famous destination for Manhattan foodies is now changing the name of its “Lobster Salad.”

The upscale Zabar’s deli had used that term for 20 years. It turns out there was no lobster.

During a recent visit, the New Orleans food writer bothered to read the ingredients. The label said: wild fresh water crayfish.

Owner Saul Zabar reasoned that crawfish, while not Maine lobster, is a distant cousin.

Then he got a call from the Maine Lobster Council, which begged to differ.

The salad goes for $16.95 a pound. Zabar says using actual lobster would make it even more expensive. It’s now being renamed: “Seafare Salad” although crawfish do not live in the sea.

The deli owner in NYC is of course correct to recognize the family connection between Louisiana mudbugs from America’s Delta and American lobsters. Nevertheless the warm freshwater habitat of the former doesn’t overlap with the cold saltwater habitat of the latter, so ‘seafare salad seems a stretch. Nevertheless, our governor is wrong not to acknowledge the genetic connection between the cousins, which share the following classification commonalities:

Kingdom Animalia; Phylum Arthropoda; Subphylum Crustacea; Class Malacostraca; Order Decapoda.

Here’s where they split company:

Lobster: Family – Nephropidae; Genus – Homarus; Species - H. Americanus Mudbug: Family - Cambaidae; Genus – Procambaridae; Species - P. clarkii

Corruption in coastal home elevation ‘bidness’

Photo from The Times-Picayune

Despite denials by state officials, accelerating sea level rise, as well as subsidence, is a serious threat through 2050 and beyond to virtually all residents of south Louisiana. Thus, perhaps the smartest decision that the owner of a home south of I-10/I-12 could make is to elevate his/her house above potential flood levels, at least for the 30-year term of a standard mortgage.

In the post-Katrina era, home elevation has become a significant local industry, thanks largely to a federal subsidy worth hundreds of millions for a hazard mitigation program to underwrite the significant cost of this procedure.

Competition among subcontractors in the home elevation ‘bidness’ is generating charges of corruption on the part of the Louisiana Office of Community Development (OCD) and the Shaw corporation, which was contracted by the state to oversee the administration of the program.

David Hammer reported on this developing story with coastal implications in The Times-Picayune on August 11. Today he followed up on this story here and a related account by Joe Gyan appeared today in The Advocate. Employees of both the state and the Shaw Corporation have sued their respective employers for harassment, demotion and/or suspension, for alleged retaliation for blowing the whistle on corruption on the part of state and Shaw officials. Stay tuned.

August 12


Mark Davis, Esq., photographed in his familiar fat cat lawyer's garb

Midwestern ‘mouthpiece’ for the Mississippi sees river management as key to saving coast

Lawyers are often parodied as litigation-prone ambulance chasers or mouthpieces for unsavory well-heeled clients. Tulane Law Professor Mark Davis is a ‘coastal attorney,’ ironically hailing from Indianapolis, who has been a mouthpiece for the Mississippi River and its delta for many years. Mark’s client has deep holes but no deep pockets, which makes one wonder what keeps him in pinstripes, silk ties and Cuban cigars.

Yesterday I received the following email message from Professor Davis, with this link to an op-ed on Mississippi watershed management that he authored for the media in Memphis. This essay by the long-term former director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) is cogent to the continuing discussion about reducing gulf hypoxia and nourishing our dying delta:

With this year’s historic flooding in the Mississippi River basin still somewhat fresh in mind, I thought you might be interested in the attached op-ed that I authored in today’s Memphis Commercial Appeal (the leading daily newspaper in that market) regarding the need to seize this moment to rethink the management of our rivers. By way of background (as some of you know) the Institute has been included in a diverse basin-wide network that is trying to get its hands around the management of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers.

This op-ed offers a very rough framework for approaching that task, a framework that is less utilitarian and more rooted in the a value driven approach to dealing with water.

This is part of our broader work to focus attention on ensuring that we do not leave that waters that Louisiana depends on receiving to chance.  We are not entirely parochial in this game but we are firmly convinced that the fate of this river system turns on the fate of its delta.  The basin may be the body of the nation but right now the coastal delta is the heart of that body.

Mark S. Davis, Senior Research Fellow and Director, Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy

We're on our way!

August 11

One of my favorite summer activities as a kid was to splash around in an ice-cold spring-fed stream near my home ten miles from Baltimore, turning over rocks looking for aquatic critters of interest. Sixty years later I spend each morning in Baton Rouge turning over media rocks looking for items of coastal interest.

Today’s search turned up several items that demonstrate the huge gulf between the scale of the issues and the scale at which they’re being addressed.

Let me explain.

Two coastal projects to be funded. Wow.

Yesterday NPR local affiliate WRKF-FM carried the following brief notice by Tegan Wendland about two coastal projects that have been approved for funding.

The state of Louisiana and Vermilion Parish have been awarded nearly $500,000 in federal grants for coastal restoration and protection projects.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement announced Tuesday it has awarded more than $295,000 to the state Department of Natural Resources for beach and dune restoration planning in Lafourche Parish. Vermilion Parish is getting a grant worth more than $186,000 for a shoreline protection and marsh creation plan at Tiger Point, along the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

The grants come from a $250 million pot of federal funding earmarked for Louisiana and other oil and gas producing states.

At a combined cost of $481,000 these projects, apparently for planning, not construction, amount to about 0.05% of the $100 billion cost of coastal restoration frequently cited by the Governor’s Office. Gee whiz.

No funding for gulf hypoxia; what’s new?

The Daily Comet carried an editorial yesterday calling for federal action on gulf hypoxia. Having served for years as Louisiana’s representative on the federal/state hypoxia task force this opinion is déjà vu all over again.

Dead fish in Bayou Lafource; so what?

Chris Guidry reported a fish kill in Bayou Lafourche in today’s The Daily Comet. This once beautiful flowing distributary of the river, dammed off in 1904, is now a vegetation-choked ditch. The article says nary a word about the exciting 20 year-old proposal to reconnect Bayou Lafourche to the Mississippi River and make it flow again. Over the years this project has ‘watered down’ from a river to a trickle, and who knows when it will be constructed.

Since 1991 when I first became involved in coastal policy I see little if any closure in the ‘realism gap’ between what the coastal future holds vs. how it’s being addressed.

August 10

Jared Diamond gets a worthy successor in Charles Mann

Invasive species: the profound coastal legacy of Christopher Columbus

The following three broad categories of humans have resided in what is now south Louisiana since ~5,000 BC:

* indigenous peoples who colonized the emerging delta throughout its seven thousand year history, moving south into former open ocean as permitted by the newly-accreting deltaic landscape;

* European explorers during the 15th century, by which time the delta had expanded to its zenith; and

* African slaves imported by Europeans to the gulf coast, where they were used to alter the landscape with the combined muscle power of humans and draft animals.

During the past 199 years since Louisiana achieved statehood the southern third of the state has suffered massive physical and biological body blows that have contributed to the current dysfunctional state of America’s Delta.

Physical stressors are topped by two categories: 1) entrainment of the lower Mississippi River for navigation and flood control; and 2) cumulative impacts of mineral extraction by the oil and gas industry.

Biological stressors include the more subtle impacts of invasive species, exotic organisms that have taken up delta residence and expanded rapidly in the absence of natural biological controls that existed wherever they originally evolved.

The familiar list of exotic organisms that have recently impacted the landscape and waterscape includes wetland-chomping nutria, bayou-clogging water hyacinth and Salvinia, oyster pathogens, Chinese tallow trees, etc., etc. These diverse critters were either inadvertently or intentionally introduced by our post-Columbian human predecessors in south Louisiana.

On the subject of invasive species Terry Gross conducted a fascinating interview on August 8 with Charles C. Mann, the author of 1493 Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mann portrays Christopher Columbus as having set in place the most profound ecological changes to North and South America and Europe since our species began to expand from its African roots to colonize the world perhaps 100 thousand years ago.

Mann’s book sounds highly complementary to my all-time favorite book on ecological anthropology Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Once I get the chance to read 1493 I plan to post more about the specific impacts of Columbus on coastal Louisiana.

verboten conversation topics

August 9

List of verboten conversation topics expands from two terms to three.

I’ve never adhered to the hoary rule of etiquette that strictly prohibits the robust discussion of religion or politics at social gatherings…or in barrooms. I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years in both settings, often among folks with whom I disagreed, which so far has never engendered either fisticuffs or firearms. Strictly sticking to ‘safe’ subjects is not only silly but it stifles the soul.

Nevertheless, those who subscribe to that silly rule (including at least one member of my family) should probably consider adding a third verboten category: science.

According to this item in HuffingtonPost former VP Al Gore took the gloves off yesterday in remarks delivered at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. He lashed out at anti-science deniers of climate change, calling them bulls**t artists. Here’s the quote that grabbed me:

It’s no longer acceptable in mixed company — meaning bipartisan company — to use the goddamn word ‘climate.’

It’s increasingly difficult to discuss coastal issues in either polite or impolite, mixed or unmixed company without using the word climate, so it’s nice to see ol’ Al stand up for science and against ignorance.

Speaking of the denial of science, a feature story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty on NPR’s Morning Edition today describes the opening of a major theological rift among evangelical leaders over the concept of Adam and Eve. Some combination biblical and biological scholars, such as Dennis Veneva at Trinity Western University, are warning that denying the clear evidence for the evolution of humans from other primates is marginalizing the influence of the science-denying true believers.

As noted in the story, the Vatican made this same mistake with Galileo, ending up with egg on its collective face.

August 8

Ebb tide in our national pride

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post reporter, science writer for The National Geographic and author of A hole at the bottom of the sea, about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He posted a memorable piece yesterday in Achenblog that I think perfectly captures the gloomy state of the nation and the current political view of the Obama administration in the wake of the American credit downgrade. Here’s a quote:

Congress has an approval rating of 18 percent, which is roughly the approval rating for termites. Obama’s popularity has been in downgrade mode for two years; for his 50th birthday he got a stock market crash.

The good news for Obama is, an ebbing tide lowers all ships, and it’s not clear that there’s anyone the country as a whole would prefer in the job. That whole “Hope” thing has been downgraded to a different sentiment that might be described as Not Entirely Despairing. To quote the GPS lady: Recalculating!

I particularly appreciate the allusion to an ebbing tide of confidence, which obviously carries a coastal implication, although low tides are definitely preferred in Louisiana!

Dead zone reduction effort is not really serious

Yesterday The Daily Comet carried a story by Nikki Buskey that emphasizes the fact that the government has never been truly interested in reducing gulf hypoxia.

Left: backside of Grand Isle post Katrina, right: front side of Cape Cod in 1995 before the lighthouse was moved back from the eroding shoreface

August 7

Comparing Cape Cod and Grand Isle in terms of altitude,* latitude and attitude.

As loyal Parrot-heads will remember, the peripatetic maritime minstrel Jimmie Buffett wrote a memorable song in 1977 called Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes.

It’s hard to imagine two barrier shorelines that have less in common then Grand Isle, Louisiana and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Altitude and latitude are among the most obvious differences but attitude is a third, which is the subject of this post.

These two disparate and dynamic sandy shorelines, one on the Gulf and one on the Atlantic, do share something in common, however…rate of change. Louisiana clearly doesn’t hold a patent on rapid coastal retreat, as shown in this article on Cape Cod by Heather Goldstone, Ph.D., a fellow coastal scientist with strong concerns about climate change on coastal resources.

Dr. Goldstone has created Climatide, a coastal site on Facebook.com with interests and goals clearly overlapping those of LaCoastPost. Her essay focuses on the fact that Cape Cod has been a National Seashore for fifty years, having been granted that status in 1961 during the Kennedy administration.

The national seashore concept was instituted so as to confer federal protection for pieces of shoreline judged to have special value to all Americans, not just local residents. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his heroic Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall continued under his new boss LBJ to expand this program to protect and preserve critical seashores, under the watchful eye of the National Park Service.

Former JFK and LBJ secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall (1920-2010)

Thanks in large part to Mr. Udall, national seashores now exist along the northern gulf coast in Texas, Mississippi and Florida (Padres Island and Gulf Islands seashores, respectively). Unfortunately, however, no such official national seashore exists anywhere along the fringe of America’s Delta, which is arguably as ecologically and strategically vital to the nation as any coast in America. The reason is simple.

In 2004, I think it was, the late Secretary Udall told me (as we flew over Grand Isle) that he had strongly advocated giving the federal government responsibility to protect at least part of the Louisiana coast as a National Seashore. He said that he had been totally rebuffed in this effort by Louisiana’s then highly influential congressional delegation…including Hale Boggs, Allen Ellender and Russell Long.

These proud and powerful Louisianans adamantly objected to conceding to the feds any state coastal authority, especially where oil and gas resources were involved. This attitude may have been defensible had south Louisiana not long before been put on a trajectory of accelerating coastal deterioration, largely as a result of federal actions.

Declaring Grand Isle and its adjacent barrier shoreline a national seashore would have made the feds responsible for protecting Louisiana’s first line of defense against storm energy…which increases each year as sea level rises and the landscape sinks. Of course we’ll never know the effects this decision would have had…but we do know that offsetting coastal decline in Louisiana is far, far beyond the means of our poor state.

Informed advocates of saving part of south Louisiana face many daunting challenges, including: (1) the effects of sea level rise and increasing storm risk from global warming; and (2) pervasive denial by state and local officials of climate change and its coastal consequences. During our struggle it may be helpful to learn how folks in coastal regions with more astute officials are coping with the first of these issues.

Thus I highly recommend reading Dr. Goldstone’s thoughts on how the folks in Cape Cod see their future.

*By altitude I of course mean elevation above sea level.

August 6

Floating algae in Lake Pontchartrain on 7/27 (as seen from a 747 by Len Bahr)

Waddya mean no bloomin’ algae in Lake Pontchartrain?

Amy Wold reported in today’s The Advocate that a massive algal bloom expected in Lake Pontchartrain after opening the Bonnet Carre’ spillway has so far not materialized. This observation, which differs markedly from the eutrophic influence of the 1997 and 2008 spillway openings, coincides with and adds to the mystery of why the gulf hypoxic zone was smaller than predicted. Lest we become smug it’s wise to remember that there are clearly still lots of coastal uncertainties out there.

I don’t question the integrity of Chris Piehler from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) whose staff has apparently been monitoring water quality in the lake. On the other hand, I just happened to have flown into New Orleans around noon on July 27 on an incoming SWA flight from Baltimore.

From my window I saw numerous bright chartreuse-colored windrows of what was clearly algae floating in the open lake and along the southwest shore near Kenner. I was therefore surprised not to read an account of an algal bloom in The Times-Picayune either before or later. What gives?

Two, rather than three science review panels

Based on recent news announcements, yesterday I posted an item titled, ‘Who’s on first,’ positing the formation of three science groups being established to inform the coastal protection and restoration program. Such redundancy would clearly create confusion and chaos.

A sharp-eyed reader suggested that my effort to put two and two together was probably in error by 33%. My informant thinks that only two restoration science/engineering groups are in the works: (1) the autonomous NGO-sponsored SEST group chaired by John Day (noted here on July 20); and (2) an ‘anti-erosion’ Water Institute being formed with involvement by state officials by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF). Although I didn’t make the connection yesterday, the latter group may have been inspired by the recent decision by the Corps of Engineers to eliminate the LCA Science and Technology program housed at Vicksburg.

Speaking of economic credit rating, what about ecological credibility rating?

Today’s headline story around the world is the first-ever downgrade of the American credit rating by Standard and Poor from AAA to AA+. The impact of this announcement probably won’t be known for months or even years but the historical move could cause hysteria on Wall Street on Monday.

The existence of an objective independent evaluation of US economic health by an autonomous entity suggests the usefulness of an analogous independent body to assess ecological engineering projects. I can only imagine the rank that such an entity would grant the struggling program to restore America’s Delta.

Think you’re sneakier than a squid, craftier than a cuttlefish? Think again.

Click here to see a truly awesome video-clip of cephalopod camouflage. The footage was shot recently by Roger Hanlon from The Marine Biological Lab (MBL) at Woods Hole Massachusetts and described on NPR’s Talk of The Nation Science Friday with Ira Flatow on August 5.

Abbott and Costello doing their classic baseball schtick 'Who's on first.'

August 5

Three independent science voices to inform Louisiana coastal policy?

For many years I have bemoaned the absence of an independent voice for coastal science, as state and federal officials make critical and expensive policy decisions in the absence of adult supervision. Thus I was happy to announce the formation of an outside coastal science advisory group that is currently in the works. This is an NGO-sponsored Science and Engineering Special Team (SEST) chaired by Dr. John Day that was announced here on July 20. Here’s a quote:

…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 few days later I was surprised to learn about a second science advisory group with a similar goal that sounds like it’s also well underway. Thus on July 30 I dutifully posted a notice about this new ‘anti-erosion’ Water Institute. Here’s a quote:

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.

Now I’m even more confused to have learned about a possible third group, a Water Resources Institute…which may or may not be the same as the Water Institute announced by the BRAF. This third entity was noted in glowing terms by Governor Jindal’s coastal advisor Garret Graves. He (wishfully) described it as the ‘Deltares of the United States.’

I had missed Graves’ announcement, which came on July 11, during an LPB telecast that focused on the state of the gulf coast since the Macondo well blowout. He was responding to a question from Scott Eustis with the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) on how the state is dealing with the scientific evidence for climate-induced sea level rise and other issues relevant to coastal restoration.

Graves said that the state is working with private interests, academia and ‘many other entities’ in Baton Rouge and New Orleans to establish an ‘independent’ voice to inform and oversee coastal restoration policy. This announcement sounds great but the proof is in the pudding. State officials have never relinquished the slightest policy control to a higher scientific authority. Graves promised that an announcement on the details will soon be released. I’d particularly like to know the names of the academic scientists who have been helping to design this group.

Judge for yourself the meaning of this announcement by viewing minutes 50-53 of the 60 minute After the Spill video clip.

Enquiring minds like mine would like to know whether there is any coordination among the planners of these three entities. Who’s on first; what’s on second, etc.

August 4

Dr. Roy Dokka (photo from the Daily Comet)

Roy Dokka’s legacy remembered

Associated Press reporter Cain Burdeau wrote an article published in today’s Daily Comet about the legacy of coastal geologist Roy Dokka, who died suddenly on August 1 at the tender age of 59.* I was quoted in the article as follows:

“The bottom-line is that he (Dokka) says that levees are the only long-term solution, and they would not be a solution. I think he had a big part of the picture, but not the whole picture.”

Bahr added: “There has not been enough emphasis on the underlying geophysics.”

Lest anyone misinterpret these quotes, in no way would I ever demean Roy Dokka’s scientific legacy, which is a fundamental contribution to the expanding knowledge base on which meaningful coastal protection and restoration is absolutely dependent. Nevertheless, neither he nor anyone else could totally comprehend the complex interacting geological, ecological and political processes on which saving America’s Delta is contingent.

Dr. Dokka devoted his energy and expertise to the short and long-term feasibility of structural measures (levees) to protect residential (fast land) zones from storm surge. He didn’t involve himself in the feasibility of restoring deltaic accretion, using river sediments and wetland plant production to keep up with subsidence and sea level rise.

My quote about the under-emphasis on the geophysics of our delta was not a criticism of Dokkabut of the overall coastal protection and restoration program. In my opinion this program has consistently overemphasized deltaic surface processes, e.g., wetland health, at the expense of the underlying deltaic geophysics, on which Dokka was an authority. I say that as a member of the ‘surface science’ community!

The loss of Dr. Dokka silences an independent voice of reason on which successful coastal protection and restoration ultimately depends.

*Only six years older than the age at which both Drs. Shea Penland and Greg Stone passed away.

Paper on climate change and extreme events

My friend and colleague Mike Waldon kindly forwarded this scholarly paper that bears reading by anyone with the patience to read a statistical analysis of the possible relationship between gradual changes in global climate indices and the parallel occurrence of extreme weather events. Would that a few of the people who glibly dismiss a possible causal relationship had such patience.

Upcoming coastal engineering conference

Retired General Tom Sands, another friend and former Commander of the Mississippi River Valley Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers, forwarded this notice of an upcoming conference relevant to coastal protection and restoration in Louisiana. The Louisiana chapter of the Society of American Military Engineers (S.A.M.E.) is hosting a lower Mississippi valley regional conference at the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans on September 7-9. Here’s a quote on the conference theme:

Technical sessions will focus primarily on Coastal Protection and Restoration as well ?as general environmental considerations. Speakers and panel participants ?will be distinguished experts from the public and private sectors.

Roy Dokka in his familiar role as lecturer on Louisiana coastal subsidence

August 3

Roy Dokka passes and we lose another* member of Louisiana’s coastal brain trust

As noted frequently in LaCoastPost, academic science gets short shrift when it comes to strategic decisions on spending limited funds to salvage some of south Louisiana. Research scientists who could and should provide information vital to reducing technical uncertainties with respect to coastal restoration measures are almost never given a policy voice.

As noted in this recent post, politics always trumps science, especially when the facts conflict with popular opinion or become inconvenient to local officials. Now those of us who advocate for more science have further reason to be disheartened. Fate has stepped in and reduced the pool of senior coastal experts who should long ago have been seated at the adult policy table.

I have been notified that on the evening of August 1, Roy M. Dokka, LSU professor of civil and environmental engineering, passed away unexpectedly. Dr. Dokka was an authority in the esoteric field of geodesy, geoinformatics and surveying, specialties absolutely critical to measure the extremely dynamic surface movements of the delta on which we live and work.

He directed both the LSU Center for Geoinformatics, and the Louisiana Spatial Reference Center from which he studied present-day normal fault movements of the Louisiana delta. From my limited understanding of Dokka’s science, he used a satellite-based network of ‘antennae’ to monitor in real time minute changes in elevation of the south Louisiana landscape, relative to sea level.

Professor Dokka was a critical member of what I call the Louisiana coastal brain trust, one of the elite authorities whose voice in a rational world would have had special resonance. He primarily measured changes in elevation of residential areas and infrastructure such as levees and highways, rather than coastal wetlands. Thus Dokka’s expertise was particularly relevant to coastal protection, rather than the restoration side of the equation.

He was one of the more pessimistic of those who predict how much of America’s Delta can be expected to survive the 21st century. Unfortunately for coastal protection, Dokka’s voice will no longer be available to provide expert assistance on which coastal protection measures should be justified.

While writing this mini-post I discovered a characteristic power point presentation by Dokka on the causes, rates and projected effects of subsidence in south Louisiana. This sobering set of slides and commentary should be required viewing by everyone currently engaged in updating the state’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. This particularly applies to personnel in the Louisiana Ofice of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR).

I find it of special interest that Dokka’s presentation is archived on the web site of the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), not that of OCPR!

I last spoke with Roy Dokka on April 29 on the front steps of the State Capitol, ironically during a rally to support the repeal of Louisiana’s anti-science Science Education Act. During our conversation we discussed the highly controversial Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection project (MTTG) now under construction at the seaward edge of Terrebonne Parish.

Based on his knowledge of the combined rates of coastal subsidence and sea level rise in that region, he acknowledged that the public is being misled about long term protection from gulf storms by MTTG and similar levee projects. We didn’t discuss the corps of engineers’ $11 billion cost estimate for MTTG but I’m sure that Roy would have agreed that there are much better ways to invest incredibly limited coastal funds.

Candid, science-based critiques of politically-popular coastal protection measures were characteristic of Roy Dokka…which probably explains why folks with his kind of expertise are never at the policy table.

*In addition to the tragic premature losses of Drs. Shea Penland and Greg Stone

Aug 2

Dead Zone meeting in New Orleans Aug 2-4

A three-day joint meeting of the state-run Gulf of Mexico Alliance and the federal/state Hypoxia Task Force begins today at the Westin Hotel in New Orleans. The meeting is being held to brainstorm the possibility of addressing environmental problems throughout the Gulf of Mexico in a coordinated fashion. This meeting is free and open to the public. Details on the meeting and its sponsors can be found here.

The primary thrust of this meeting is to discuss the need to integrate existing disparate, disjointed…and underfunded efforts to solve two massive environmental problems: (1) chronic and worsening gulf hypoxia that occurs each summer; and (2) deteriorating coastal and nearshore habitat around the gulf.

The dead zone is primarily the result of faulty agricultural practices throughout the Mississippi watershed, tens of hundreds of miles from the coast. Habitat deterioration and loss has long been a function of economic development, energy production and navigation channels within the coastal zone. It also involves relative sea level rise…and mismanagement of the Mississippi River, which used to contribute sufficient sediment to keep its delta above water. The river contributes about 90% of the total freshwater input to the gulf, along with excess nitrogen from corn farming.

Because the largest river in North America is the common element in the two primary environmental problems in the gulf, solving these problems will involve a different management strategy for the Mississippi River.

Two things stand in the way of significant progress on both issues: politics and money. The former primarily involves the lobbying power of two industries: agriculture in the Midwest and big oil offshore. Parochial interests of the five states also contribute impediments. Lack of funding can be laid at the doorstep of the same industries, that are clearly afraid of change.

I won’t be at the meeting but I would encourage anyone who can to attend. I’m enough of a cynic to doubt a serious outcome, however.

Ivor van Heerden vindicated…but not rehired

It was reported by NPR affiliate WRKF-FM yesterday that the American Association of University Professors issued a harsh criticism to Louisiana’s flagship university for having severed the employment contract with coastal geologist Ivor van Heerden. I can’t wait to hear Chancellor Martin’s response.

Disaster trend map from UNEP

August 1

Coastal disasters in the news: A. dead zone; B. debt deadline; and C. deadly heat

A. Dead zone smaller than expected

Janet McConnaughey just reported for AP that Louisiana coastal scientist Dr. Nancy Rabalais, who is offshore through August 6 surveying the area of the 2011 gulf hypoxic zone, has reported seemingly anachronistic results. Rather than measuring the largest hypoxic area in history that she had predicted as a result of the great 2011 river flood, she has documented an area more typical of average flow years. You can access her survey results here. Dr. Rabalais believes that turbulence and oxygen input from tropical storm Don, which just died along the Texas coast, may explain the discrepancy from her pre-cruise prediction.

I may have been the only coastal scientist around with the temerity to speculate that opening both the Bonnet Carre and Morganza spillways in May could have resulted in sufficient nitrogen assimilation and increased turbulence to offset the record volume of river flow and nitrogen flux. Read my post here and scroll down in the post to note comments 4 and 5 by my friend Don Boesch challenging my ‘naive’ speculation. As much as I hate to say, “I told you so,” I told you so, Don You can buy the beer next time you’re in town.

B. Shrinking federal budget implies the continued shrinking of south Louisiana

If by some chance you didn’t hear the biggest news story of the day, virtually every major news outlet headlined the outline of a deal struck during the wee hours this morning to prevent a global economic meltdown. Here’s the story on NPR’s Morning Edition. I see virtually everything that happens around the world in the context of its coastal implications, and this pending debt deal is no exception.

Assuming that the Senate approves the deal later today, the real fireworks will happen tomorrow in the most conservative House in my memory, not coincidentally on the August 2 drop dead date. If you’re a junkie like me you can read the details of the current agreement here. If you’re a cynic like me you also contemplate the incredible amount of time and money wasted making this political sausage. Just imagine a similar effort spent addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs.

Stock markets around the world are responding to this news by rising like a gulf coast tidal surge during an approaching tropical storm. Averting an economic catastrophe by belt tightening is obviously a good thing but it implies an ever-shrinking chance that the ever-shrinking landscape south of I-10/I-12 will receive serious federal help during the coming decade, possibly the last chance to save America’s Delta.

C. Heat wave reaching epic proportions to our west

NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday carried an AP story about the record heat wave that is literally killing people in Oklahoma and Texas. Dallas has now exceeded its longest heat wave in history…even before the arrival of August. The only possible silver lining in this unprecedented heat wave is that it’s happening squarely in the backyard of supreme global warming denier Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)…who not only has stated that global warming is a gigantic hoax and that Earth is now in a cooling trend.


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  1. Kelly Haggar says:

    Quote A from Len -

    “this program has consistently overemphasized deltaic surface processes, e.g., wetland health, at the expense of the underlying deltaic geophysics, on which Dokka was an authority”

    Quotes B and C from Len -

    Physical stressors are topped by two categories: 1) entrainment of the lower Mississippi River for navigation and flood control; and 2) cumulative impacts of mineral extraction by the oil and gas industry.

    Biological stressors include . . . .

    Kelly begins -

    1. If the geo/subsurface aspects have been “underemphasized” so to speak, then where do they fit in your model of the coast, which only addresses the surface and the life science aspects?

    2. Surely you must be aware of how weak Dokka thought the Morton/extraction theory was. “Weak” is probaably giving Morton too much credit as I once heard him say, from a podium during Q & A, that Morton’s pressure/extraction theory was “howling at the moon.”

  2. Coastcaster says:

    Some readers may remember that the Tangipahoa River was under consideration for National Wild and Scenic designation back in the 70s and DOI secretary James Watt even came down for a look see. Our delegation was not to hear of it as private riparian landowners were wary of any federal influence on how they might be able to use their property. Later, a short stretch of Saline Bayou traversing federal land in Winn Parish within the KNF was placed in the National Wild & Scenic River System.

    The Grand Isle seaside has been so alttered by rehab and erosion “control” projects, not to mention incessant beach raking, over the past 20 years that it is hardly worthy of a National Seashore designation today, even if state and local politicians wished it. The 14-mile beachfront to the west along the Caminada headland is a better candidate, but the oil spill response there has trammeled it so that it will take a few years of wind, wave and tide to restore its natural condition and value to wildlife.

  3. Walt Sikora says:

    You can lament all you want about the fact that Louisiana government officials give coastal scientists the short shrift when it comes to policy decisions but that is the way it’s always been done.

    From my 18-year experience at the LSU Center for Wetland Resources, scientists were treated as transients who could be hired and fired at will. The only coastal “scientists” who survived and prospered at LSU were those who were willing to toe the line and not rock the boat.

    If you doubt what I’m saying, ask Ivor about that.

  4. Torbjörn Törnqvist says:

    It is tragic indeed to see so many geoscientists who have dedicated much of their career on understanding coastal Louisiana pass away so early. I am saddened by this latest news about Roy Dokka. While he and I differed on the causes of relative sea-level rise and wetland loss in coastal Louisiana, we shared a deep concern about the future of our region. No matter whether this would be primarily due to subsidence driven by deep crustal processes, as Roy advocated, or due to shallow compaction and accelerated sea-level rise – I think we both agreed that the situation is dire.

    Roy’s legacy includes the establishment of a network of continuous GPS stations throughout the southern portion of the state that will continue to produce invaluable data on vertical (and horizontal) land motions for many years to come. Len correctly points out that such data should play a key role in future policy decisions about the Louisiana coast. I can only hope that the type of geodetic knowledge that Roy provided won’t be lost. Our state desperately needs this type of expertise, so it is critical that this line of research be continued.

  5. Don Boesch says:

    Hi Len, I am not sure what you told me that has turned out to be true concerning either greater nutrient assimilation or turbulent mixing as a result of the flood diversions. Maybe I missed something. Can you clarify or point me to the evidence for both of these points?

    Rather, as you can see from the graphic in Dr. Rabalais’ survey results that you linked, mapping east of the delta earlier in July (not usually done because hypoxia is generally not that extensive there) revealed a band of hypoxia on the shelf from the Chandeleur Islands into Alabama. This suggests to me that aomw portion of the extensive nutrient inputs from the Bonnet Carre escaped though lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne onto the shelf off Mississippi Sound. On the issue of turbulence, Nancy’s explanation for why the hypoxic zone west of the delta was less than projected is that by the time the survey had reached Texas there had been mixing (yes, this induces turbulence on the shelf) associated with the broader wind field of Tropical Storm Don (no relation), which had popped up by that time. This has nothing to do with the turbulent mixing below the diversions as you suggested. In fact, surface plumes of very low salinity water off the Atchafalaya and east of the delta, persisting well until July, would seem to refute your diversion-induced turbulent mixing hypothesis.

    ‘Naive’ was the word you chose to describe your speculation; it wasn’t my choice of words. Nonetheless, I am always happy to buy you a beer whenever I am back in the Pelican state or you are in your home state of Maryland.

    Don

    • Don-
      In March 2009 I noted that our distinguished oceanographer colleague Dr. Don Wright from VIMS surmised that if the Mississippi River were to hypothetically discharge into the higher energy regime of the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the relatively quiet Gulf of Mexico, it would not create a dead zone.
      Thus it seems to me that if more of the total volume of Mississippi River water crossing into Louisiana could be ‘sprinkled’ rather than ‘decanted’ into the gulf, less stratification should occur, shrinking the dead zone footprint. By this logic I recently suggested that the use of the Morganza and Bonnet Carre spillways this year could have offset the effects of the increased flux of nitrogen.
      I’ll be happy to discuss this concept over beer.
      Len

      • Don Boesch says:

        Let’s make sure the place we go for the beer has an abundant supply of napkins, so I can show you graphically that the multiple ideas embedded in your reply here constitute misunderstandings of how this system works.

        Don

  6. “Just imagine a similar effort spent addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs.”

    They would probably (unfortunately) make similar progress, meaning not really accomplishing anything meaningful. This supposed big debt bill still doesn’t even come close to fixing the over spending habits of congress that has gone on for more than 30 years.

    They will according to THIS bill still increase spending 8 times faster than the economy has been growing. Sad.

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