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November 2011 Coastal Scuttlebutt

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 Note that this post is typically updated daily by noon Central Time.

NOVEMBER FIFTEENTH

The new Mrs. EWE, EWE and Leo Honeycutt, EWE's biographer on July 16, 2011

Governor Edwards pretty much ignored the coast

Between the years 1991 and 2008 I served in various shades of coastal advisor in the administrations of five governors, from Roemer to Jindal. From Janury 1992 to December 1996 my bi-weekly paycheck bore the signature of Edwin Washington Edwards…EWE, the second most colorful CEO of Louisiana since statehood was achieved in 1812.

My official title, Executive Assistant to the Governor in the Office of Coastal Activities, carried what seemed in those days a pretty generous salary of $58K, especially given that my boss’ salary was only $70K. I had no other source of income,* however, whereas I’m sure that EWE’s lifestyle was unaffected by the relative pittance that he earned from the state.

When my 18 year tenure in the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities ended with a whimper in September 2008 I was earning about $90K. I have no clue what my counterpart in Bobby Jindal’s office, Garret Graves, earns today but whatever it is he works his ass off for it, as did I.

I virtually lived my job 365 days a year, never taking time off, always worried about what could happen in my absence from the office, I’ve long considered writing some of the more colorful incidents down, especially during EWE’s last term.

On July 16 I attended a book signing at the Citiplace Barnes and Noble in Baton Rouge to purchase a copy of Leo Honeycutt’s authorized biography of Edwards. When I finally got to the table at which Edwards and Honeycutt were signing copies I reminded my former boss that I had been his coastal advisor during his final term. He paused briefly, stared at me intently and said, “Yeah, I remember; you were the man back then!”

The comment inflated my ego but clashed starkly with the fact that in four years EWE had never met with me one-on-one to discuss the state of the coast, leaving that chore to his various top staffers.** His coastal interests were pretty much limited to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) project and revenues from oil and gas fees and severance taxes.

After signing my copy of the book EWE agreed with my comment that it would be interesting to chat about my experience with his successors in the Governor’s Mansion…Foster, Blanco and Jindal. I think he was serious but I don’t expect the phone to ring anytime soon.

After hearing our brief exchange, Mr. Honeycutt raised his eyebrows and queried, “Coastal advisor?” with a tone indicating that, during his long and obviously painstaking research on the book, he had never heard EWE describe coastal issues. That’s pretty good evidence that the coastal crises were not on his radar.

On September 13 I read the last of 556 pages of text. Here are some of my takeaway observations from a fascinating but somewhat tedious read:

Most telling revelation:

That the terms coastal and wetlands appear only once in 556 pages…as part of the phrase Coastal Wetlands Environmental Levy (CWEL), a tax on oil production proposed by Dave Treen to raise coastal funds to offset obvious coastal damage. CWEL was vociferously opposed by EWE! The term Coast shows up only once…as part of the phrase Gulf Coast States. The terms delta, erosion, marshes, subsidence, swamps, etc., are nohere to be found in the text.

Most striking name omissions:

Ben Jeffers, Chief of Staff during EWE’s last term and Jack McLanahan, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR);***

Both of these men, along with Andrew Martin, were my designated coastal contacts.

Most interesting name inclusion:

John Cummings, New Orleans developer who was involved in the Harrah Casino deal. I recently stumbled on Cumming’s name as the owner of the property that wouldn’t stop burning in Eastern New Orleans, land that has been proposed as a new landfill.

Most appalling revelation:

Even if Honeycutt was less than totally objective in his portrayal of EWE, his book documents the blatant bias of Federal Judge Frank Polozola and Prosecutor Jim Letten. The volume of documentation and painstaking detail of the trial that sent EWE to federal prison reveals how vindictive the feds were and how keen they were on convicting EWE.

My friend Karl DeRouen, Ph.D., who now teaches Political Science at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, worked with me in the coastal office during EWE’s last term. Karl is mentioned in the book as a victim of collateral damage inflicted by the federal zealotry to incarcerate EWE.

Most surprising revelation:

That Sid Moreland, formerly Edwards’ chief gatekeeper at his principal office at the Governor’s mansion ultimately betrayed his boss on the witness stand, testifying for the prosecution.

On September 19 I attended the Baton Rouge Press Club to hear remarks by EWE. Marsha Shuler reported on the event in The Advocate on September 20. I arrived a little late and missed what was presumably the highlight, Edwards’ advocacy of a $5/barrel surcharge on oil that he said would put our budget in the black.

I’m fairly certain that he didn’t say a word about the coast, however, which had shrunk by about 200 square miles during what I personally think was an unnecessarily long eight year incarceration.

*Except for the token amount that I still earn teaching an environmental science correspondence course during my spare time.

**Ben Jeffers, COS; Al Donovan, Executive Counsel; Sid Moreland, chief guard at EWE’s door; and Andrew Martin, whose title I disremember.

***Jack McClanahan bore a striking resemblance to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, complete with height and swagger, oil and gas connections, cowboy boots, white Stetson hat and colorful drawl.

NOVEMBER FOURTEENTH

Note strategic geographic location of the Central Wetlands.

Could a restored Central Wetlands help prevent another Katragedy?

The 2005 flood associated with Hurricane Katrina, which scarred the face of New Orleans, was the direct consequence of shoddy levees, including the levee along the western border of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). In November 2009 Judge Stanwood Duval found the Corps of Engineers culpable for the MR-GO levee failure, in a lawsuit brought against the federal government…a decision now under appeal by federal lawyers.

Although I agree with the Duval decision, the ‘Katragedy’ could be laid at the doorstep of the state, as well as the corps, for having supported the construction of the MRGO ‘Hurricane Highway’ in the first place. At any rate a $3 billion plan has now been pieced together from a collection of projects to attempt to stitch up the MRGO stab wound into the heart of America’s Delta, which has been festering since 1962.

One of the major elements of this plan involves restoring the Central Wetlands, a 47 square mile piece of formerly forested wetland landscape that provided natural NOLA flood protection before it was inadvertently impounded, sunken and made totally dysfunctional by the construction of MRGO. The initial phase of the Central Wetlands repair is a $10 million demonstration project to elevate 3.6 square miles up to sea level, installing a plumbing system to irrigate the area with treated sewage water and planting baldcypress trees on the ridge of newly elevated soil surface.

On November 11 I supported this project that would theoretically restore 7.6% of the Central Wetlands (scroll down) which generated some thoughtful comments from John Fox and Kelly Haggar, who both specifically challenged the specific proposition that restored coastal forests within flood levees could have a ‘frictional’ impact on storm driven surge.

Scroll way down to see this chain of commentary. Today’s The Times-Picayune editorial staff strongly endorsed the implementation of the first part of the Central Wetlands Plan, again on the basis of storm protection.

My friends with oceanographic credentials report that coastal baldcypress trees can withstand and absorb much of the wind and wave energy accompanying a hurricane that could provide an important sustainable line of defense in strategic locations…typically outside of levees. Based on the strategic location of the Central Wetlands shown in the above graphic from the Environmental Defense Fund and The Times-Picayune. I continue to support the project for its added friction against hurricane wind-driven water, as well as it other attributes.

If a more powerful Katrina II were to cause catastrophic failure of newly strengthened levees, with wind and waves blowing westward from Lake Borgne, I believe that a restored Central Wetlands could add significant protection. I concede, however that the proposed demonstration-scale project my not be of sufficient scale to be significant.

NOVEMBER THIRTEENTH

Issues in white identified by EDF. The state is currently focusing on whether or not to continue digging up beaches looking for tar balls.

Is residual oil the real issue here?

Recent editorial commentary and news reporting on coastal issues demonstrates a disconcerting disconnect between rhetoric and reality. The dying coastal ‘forest’ is ignored while we waste valuable time discussing a few sickly ‘trees.’

I see a widespread failure to appreciate the nature and scale of the real issues, judged by the level of serious discussion of relatively trivia. Case in point.

An editorial in yesterday’s The Times-Picayune supported the contention by the Governor’s Office contention, as articulated by Garret Graves, that the Coast Guard is shorting the state by calling for a phase-out of the active phase of the BP oil cleanup. I question the very importance of this dispute, which, however it is settled, is irrelevant to and distracting from the grave problems faced by the residents and ecosystems of south Louisiana. The accompanying graphic was developed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) which has been promoting projects with real significance.

Bruce Alpert reported yesterday in The Times-Picayune that the House and the President disagree over whether the Corps of Engineers annual ‘allowance’ should include funding for coastal restoration and channel dredging in Louisiana. This dispute is over peanuts. It doesn’t involve hundreds of millions of dollars that would be necessary to actually accomplish something. The disagreement is between a trifling $1 million and $35.8 million.

Based on the $251 million spent to build 16 miles of temporary sand berms this is a purely symbolic struggle, much ado about nothing. A related editorial over a cash dispute also in yesterday’s The Times-Picayune describes the uncertain fate of passage of the Senate Restore Bill that has yet to pass either the House or the full Senate. Real money is at stake here, with billions rather than millions on the table and the T-P correctly pointed out the urgency of its passage.

NOVEMBER TWELFTH

What’s going on? Has the LCA Science & Technology Program been resurrected from the dead?

Anyone who has read three or more posts during the three years of this blog realizes that I’m obsessed with the need for an independent voice for science in the salvation of America’s Delta.

An umbrella three legged entity called the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) Science & Technology Program; the LCA Science & Technology Office and the LCA Science Advisory Board was established in 2006 by the State of Louisiana and the Corps of Engineers to provide just such a service. In my opinion this ambiguous entity was anything but independent but it was better than nothing.

According to this July 19 article in The Tines-Picayune by Mark Schleifstein, the LCA Science & Tehnology Program Office was disbanded earlier this year over a budget dispute between the state and the Corps of Engineers.

Thus, imagine my surprise when I got word from an informant about an upcoming meeting of the LCA Science Board, one leg of the LCA Science stool that was declared dead and gone in July. The meeting is scheduled this Tuesday, November 15 in Baton Rouge.

Before he was shot dead by his father on April 1, 1984, the late great singer Marvin Gaye famously asked the iconic musical question, “What’s going on?”  That’s my question for today’s Coastal Scuttlebutt.

I now plan to attend the meeting just to find out who’s on first and what’s on second. Anyhow, here’s the agenda:

LCA Science Board Meeting

Capital Park Welcome Center 702 North River Road?Baton Rouge, LA 70802 Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Draft Agenda (Times are approximate)

8:30 – 8:45 Welcome and Introductions Peter Goodwin, Chair

Review of meeting objectives

8:45 – 10:00 LCA S&T Program Office Project Progress Report: Mead Allison, UT-Austin?2008-2010 Sediment and Water Budget of the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers

10:00 – 10:15 Break

10:15 – 11:00 LCA S&T Program Office Project Progress Report: Allison Bathymetric and Sediment Transport Study of the Mississippi River Associated with the 2011 Opening of The Bonnet Carré Spillway

11:00 – 11:45 Update on the Wax Lake Delta Land Gain Study Yvonne Allen, USACE-ERDC

11:45 – 1:15 Lunch (on your own)

1:15 – 2:30 LCA Science Board Synthesis Report: Bob Dean, UF?River Diversions: Principles, Processes, Challenges John Wells, VIMS?and Opportunities – A Guidance Document 2:30 – 2.45 Break

2:45 – 3:15 Update of the NOAA/LCA Science Board Panel Report: John Teal, WHOI?Ecology of Diversions

3:15 – 4:00 Open Discussion of All Presentations

4:00 – 4:15 Presentation of Service Awards to the Board Members Jim Stefanov, USGS

4:15 – 4:30 Closing Comments and Adjourn Barb Kleiss, USACE-MVD Jim Pahl, CPRA

Note: After posting this piece around noon I received email responses from two friends with coastal connections who each shed light on the sad fate of the LCA science program. Tuesday’s meeting will be the last one.

Len- The short answer is that the Science Board will have its final meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. After that, the Board will be dissolved because of the closure of the Science and Technology Office. I’m not privy at this point to any future plans that the state may have for independent science-based voices but presumably(?) this has been given considerable thought.

Len- The SB is dead.  The state and Corps could not come to an agreement on the wording of the cost-share document.  Quite a bit of money got sucked back into the Corps and repurposed.

This is the last meeting to wrap up and allow the board members to present their white paper (on diversions) to the public.  I suspect Jim Stefanov will be making presentations to them and saying thank you.

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force has recommended an independent Gulf-Wide science board to be funded out of an endowment from the penalty money.  The board would weigh in on all projects.  Don’t know what the outcome will be.

Now I’m even more curious about the Water Science Institute that the state and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF) are planning and the Science and Engineering Special Team (SEST) program commissioned recently by three national NGOs.

NOVEMBER ELEVENTH

Saving the coast more tragedy than comedy

“…Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth (Act V, Scene V).

I see an analogy between Macbeth’s cynical view of life in this Shakespearian tragedy and the long struggle to save America’s Delta. Coastal restoration in Louisiana has accomplished far more sound and fury than substance during its 21-year lifespan.

The first of two back-to-back articles by Mark Schleifstein in The Times Picayune makes my point. This veteran reporter described one more dispute in a long list of noisy and furious clashes between state and federal officials over coastal policy, the outcome of which is of questionable significance.

This particular disagreement is whether, after 15 months of aggressive efforts to remove residual traces of BP oil, the time has come to change the cleanup effort to watchful waiting. Coast Guard Capt. Julia Hein, federal on-scene coordinator for the spill, says “Yes” and the Governor’s Office, represented by Garret Graves says “No.”

Photo from The Times-Picayune

What is lost in this ‘she says, he says’ struggle is that the portions of the coast in dispute face far more serious…and permanent…threats than hydrocarbons highly weathered after more than a year of microbial activity. Digging up barrier beaches to remove increasingly rare traces of tar…from which the most toxic constituents have already dissipated…probably does more harm than good. No matter how this stalemate is resolved nothing will have been accomplished, in terms of making the coast more resilient and sustainable.

Doggedly continuing an aggressive oil removal program irrespective of its ecological outcome may satisfy the understandable craving to extract a pound of flesh from BP’s Antonio* but the mission is saving the coast, not coastal revenge.

In striking contrast, Schleifstein’s second article describes what is possible when innovative thinking, good science, focused team work between disparate groups and taking advantage of diverse funding sources can actually accomplish something.

The article describes an innovative project to restore the large area of former coastal forest in St. Bernard Parish called the Central Wetlands, which was impounded and destroyed by the construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO).

*From the Merchant of Venice.

NOVEMBER TENTH

Coastal guardians Rick and Bobby

Dismantling Commerce Department tops Rick Perry’s presidential agenda

As the 2012 presidential election circus proceeds and Obama’s would be competitors for the White House spend more time at the microphone, their profound ignorance on issues with coastal import becomes more and more obvious.

Two headline grabbers from last night’s GOP presidential debate in Michigan provided a little black comedic relief from a virtual panoply of puerilepusillanimous platitudes. The first was Herman Cain’s claim that his alleged misogynist behavior was a ‘Democrat’ attempt to sabotage his campaign…as if President Obama wouldn’t give his left arm* to compete with Cain rather than Romney.

The second was the brain fart that kept Rick Perry from recalling the Department of Energy (and perhaps EPA) among the cabinet agencies that he would eliminate. He did remember Commerce, however, which is scary, even for Perry.

I take a backseat to no one with respect to my low tolerance for bureaucracy but I agree with the following quote from Investopedia:

Although some form of bureaucracy is necessary for large, efficiently run organizations, there is much debate over whether the theory is ever manifested in practice. The term is often used in a pejorative way, since many bureaucracies become too large to be efficient, and become dysfunctional as a result.

Some form of bureaucracy is necessary, however, in firms that are subject to heavy regulatory scrutiny, since a loss of policy or oversight control could have dire consequences.

All three (perhaps four) agencies that Governor Rick would axe have coastal significance but Commerce tops the list. Both Governor Rick and his counterpart (and strong advocate) in Louisiana should be reminded that no agency is more involved with coastal science and policy issues…or maintains a larger repository of publicly accessible coastal information…than the U.S. Department of Commerce.

American coastal residents, especially those in Texas and Louisiana, would be in even deeper doo doo without the technical and information services that Commerce provides in the following dozen bureaus:

1)   Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)

2)   Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)

3)   U.S. Census Bureau

4)   Economic Development Administration (EDA)

5)   Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA)

6)   International Trade Administration (ITA)

7)   Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA)

8)   National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

9)   National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)

10) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

11) National Technical Information Service (NTIS)

12) U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Click on any of these bureaus to see what they do but numbers 8, 9 and 10 have specific coastal relevance. NOAA is headed by the highly respected oceanographer Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who oversees eight broad missions, all of enormous significance to protecting and restoring America’s Delta.

I’d wager that neither Governor Perry nor his supporter Bobby Jindal are aware of these missions. Losing any of them would be problematic; losing all of them is unthinkable.

*The President is left handed.

NOVEMBER NINTH

Louisiana Hayride

During the endless summer of 2010 Governor Jindal pressured BP to donate $251 million to pile up 20 million yards of sand along four pieces of our coast, supposedly to sop up BP oil. The logic may have been like using cat litter to absorb ‘Bootsie’s’ pee.

As described in this recent post and numerous other sand berm critiques in the media, this effort was demonstrably ill-conceived and unsuccessful. It was also wasteful, not just in dollars but in sand resources.

The sole beneficiary, other than Jindal’s political image, seems to have been the dredging industry, which received a bonanza in contracts. Even many proponents of sand berms may now acknowledge in hindsight that the consequences of putting most of our eggs into the sand berm Easter basket was like investing state retirement funds in bundled home mortgages during the 2008 housing bubble.

Criticizing is easy when you have nothing to lose but while the oil was still gushing I proposed a highly specific response that would have been far less expensive, far more likely to make a difference, essentially risk free…and beneficial to both fishers and farmers in south Louisiana.

In recent months I’ve been struck by a virtual parade of trucks carrying huge barrel-shaped hay bales headed west through Baton Rouge. I assume that this modern Louisiana hayride is emergency forage for livestock in Texas and SW Louisiana, suffering from the unprecedented 2011 drought.

What if, during the summer of 2010 before the drought, a similar hay bale parade had made its way to Venice and Port Fourchon, where it could have been loaded onto a flotilla of boats of all kinds, from which it could have been scattered on oily hot spots wherever they occurred. Hay was abundant and reasonably priced last year. Hay is non-toxic and biodegradable; it’s
a magnet for oil; it provides a huge surface area substrate for aerobic bacteria that oxidize oil; and it floats long enough to be scooped up by shrimp trawls to be brought ashore.

Hay could have been dispersed inshore from small boats and barges, offshore from idled platform service vessels…or from military aircraft. The only down side I can think of to such a BP Marshal Plan is that such a hayseed concept would not have subsidized the dredging industry and it would have been a little less dramatic than the dozers and earth movers so attractive to Anderson Cooper.

Finally, I can’t think of anything that would have been more empowering and gratifying for the thousands of coastal residents who longed to lend a hand…and a boat.

NOVEMBER EIGHTH

Cain Burdeau scoops sand berm scandal worthy of a Kardashian 

Part one of a retrospective on Louisiana’s infamous sand berm project was posted here on October 26. Part two will be published later today…after I return from the dentist.

As luck would have it, while wrapping up this post on November 7, a breaking AP story by Cain Burdeau posted from New Orleans described what smells like a sordid sequel to the sand berm scam involving The Shaw Group.

This Baton Rouge firm, which was tapped on June 4 2010 by the Governor’s Office to oversee the entire sandy barrier plan, may be culpable for gross mismanagement, if not malfeasance. According to the state legislative auditor Shaw overbilled the state to the tune of about $500,000.

This is the perfect footnote to an enterprise that was planned as thoughtfully, carried out with as much subtlety…and as likely to succeed as Kim Kardashian’s wedding.

NOVEMBER SEVENTH

Landrieu Losing Key Coastal Staffer

Hypothetical Landrieu tweet

It was reported in The Times-Picayune on November 5 that Senator Mary Landrieu is losing Tanner Johnson, her legislative director. This is big news in that Johnson has been her chief coastal advisor.

Landrieu’s staff numbers 39, counting Johnson, but no one else has the coastal experience that he has. The Landrieu office website describes Tanner as follows:

Tanner A. Johnson?Legislative Director: Tanner A. Johnson is a Baton Rouge native and a graduate of the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University.  He serves as Senator Landrieu’s Legislative Director and as her principal policy advisor on coastal protection and restoration issues.  In 2009, Tanner rejoined the Landrieu team as Projects Director after most recently serving as the Legislative Director for U.S. Representative Donald J. Cazayoux, Jr., D-LA. He previously served in the Landrieu office from 2001 to 2005, first as an aide on the projects team and later as a Legislative Assistant specializing in coastal, energy and agricultural issues. He later served as a Staff Attorney for the Louisiana State Senate and as the Federal and State Legislative Liaison for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities under Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, D-LA.  Tanner is an attorney admitted to practice in Louisiana, as well as the United States Supreme Court.

I got to know and respect Tanner during his short tenure in the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities during Gov. Blanco’s term. He will be joining the staff of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF).

Landrieu’s loss of a highly experienced coastal voice will be BRAF’s gain for the same reason. BRAF is now becoming involved in coastal science, by partnering with the state to form a Water Institute,’ a non-profit coastal science body, whose function remains somewhat ambiguous. Here’s the description on the BRAF website:

The Water Institute - Vast areas of Louisiana and Gulf Coast deltas are expected to vanish with rising seas and disappearing wetlands. As a response, the Foundation, working with state and federal leaders, is creating the Water Institute, a stand-alone nonprofit that will assemble top scientists across many fields to guide the response to land loss. The institute will be worldwide resource.

I wish Tanner the very best and hope that his role in the BRAF includes helping to shape the function of this Water Institute and ensuring that it includes credible and fiercely independent coastal scientists. Senator Landrieu has a distinguished record as a supporter of coastal restoration and it’s crucial that she get good advice on the myriad of complex coastal issues. She’s appointing Elizabeth “Liz” Craddock to replace Johnson. Here’s the AP notice on this appointment carried yesterday on WWL radio in New Orleans:

NEW ORLEANS — Elizabeth “Liz” Leoty Craddock, a long-time staffer for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., will replace Tanner Johnson as Landrieu’s legislative director.

Landrieu said Tanner is returning to Louisiana from Washington, D.C., and will work for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Craddock joined Landrieu’s office in 2006 and most recently served as legislative counsel handling energy, environmental, agricultural and trade issues.

She is a native of Delhi and holds a law degree from Tulane University.

I don’t know Ms. Craddock but I hereby invite her (and Johnson) to meet for coffee to discuss critical coastal matters whenever she’s in Baton Rouge.

NOVEMBER SIXTH

Pulling the plug on Plaquemines

Time to pull the plug on the Plaquemines peninsula! 

Let’s be frank. Plaquemines Parish occupies what has become the constipated colon of the continent’s largest river. Preserving SE Louisiana ultimately depends on a plumbing overhaul that involves pulling the river’s main drain plug with an enema of sorts that would mimic natural hydrology and allow Momma Nature to save some of America’s Delta.

Progress on that front has been paralyzed for twenty years by Plaquemines Parish, former private peninsular playground of President Nungesser’s powerful predecessor, Leander Perez. The prognosis for change is particularly poor, given the provincial politics of this poorly populated parish.

In July 2004, a year before Katrina, the Plaquemines population peaked at 28,615. By July 2008 it had dropped to 21,276. Thus the future of SE Louisiana is held in the collective palms of a paltry 22,000 people, 0.9% of the 2.5 million people at risk. Today’s The Times-Picayune published a letter on this subject by yours truly.

Back in the day, Plaquemines Prez Perez infamously scotched a deal with President Truman that would have extended the state offshore boundary to nine miles, like Texas, giving Louisiana control over untold billions in oil and gas revenues…and control of its destiny.

How pitiful it is that the parish reminiscent of the troll in the folk tale Billy Goats Gruff controls the fate of our state.

NOVEMBER FIFTH

THE ENERGY INDUSTRY, DELTAIC HEALTH AND WELFARE ROLLS

Making light of membership in the 99%.

Classical economists and coastal ecologists who practice their respective trades in Louisiana don’t always see eye to eye but on one thing they all agree: for more than a century the southern third of the State of Louisiana has been profoundly influenced by the energy industry.

These two groups part company, however, over the nature and scope of the influence of oil and gas exploration, production and transport in south Louisiana. They specifically disagree over whether and how much the overall long term health and welfare of those who live and work here is dependent on the health and welfare of the delta.

The condition of America’s Delta reflects the current state of the timeless struggle between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. As the river loses power with respect to the ocean the delta suffers and the (non-monetary) value of the natural work services that flow free of charge from a healthy deltaic coast dramatically diminish.

Economists in Louisiana invariably ignore or drastically discount the loss of these work services in extolling the benefits of the energy industry. Even worse is the fact that the media seems blind to this bias.

Here’s a perfect example. The Advocate published an editorial on November 2 that extols and glorifies the economic benefits to our state of the energy industry, as ‘documented’ in a recent industry-funded assessment by conservative economist Loren Scott.*

I agree with Dr. Scott that the impacts of the energy industry are huge in terms of Louisiana employment but as usual he glosses over the long term map-changing footprint of oil and gas in Louisiana, which has never paid its own way or been called to task for the massive damage it has done.

How can the so-called benefits of oil and gas in south Louisiana be reconciled with Tegan Wendland’s post on the website of WRKF-FM 89.3 that Louisiana’s capitol city has the fifth highest concentration of poverty?

*Dr. Scott recently said in so many words on the Jim Engster Show on WRKF-FM that our citizens are too fat to be really poor.

NOVEMBER FOURTH 

Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge features Mississippi River exhibit

GOOD NEWS: Kudos for Mississippi River Exhibit in Baton Rouge

Purely by accident, during the Louisiana Book Festival on October 29, one of the two most influential women in my life* and I discovered an excellent tribute to one of the two most influential coastal forces in Louisiana.**

We had wandered into the new Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge and were surprised to see a striking permanent exhibition on the cultural and deltaic significance of the Mississippi River during this time of serious state penury.

I plan to go back with a little more time and a camera and find out who was responsible for this display. I strongly recommend the same for anyone who shares my amazement and frustration that the Mother of Waters is virtually ignored and/or taken for granted by so many residents of south Louisiana. Saving America’s Delta is virtually contingent on how this river is managed throughout this century.

*Guille Novelo and Emilie Sage Leftwich Bahr.

**The largest and most powerful river in North America and the steadily rising Gulf of Mexico. 

FAIR NEWS: Pontchartrain Basin Restoration is sort of on the national radar

As reported by ABC News, yesterday in Helena Montana Ken Salazar, Secretary of the US Department of the Interior, released a list of 101 conservation projects approved (authorized) as part of the America’s Outdoors Initiative. These projects were nominated by officials from every state and the District of Columbia. Sounds good but anyone familiar with public works projects knows that authorization is a far cry from appropriation (funding) so don’t get your hopes up.

Anyhow, the following ten project titles for the five gulf coast states were listed, without descriptions or project goals:

Texas: Rio Grand Watershed; West Galveston Bay

Louisiana: Urban waters initiative; Pontchartrain Basin Restoration.

Mississippi: Mississippi Coastal Heritage Trail; Pascagoula River National Blueway.

Alabama: Gulf Coast Restoration; Conservation Education for Alabama’s Youth

Florida: Shingle Creek Trail; EastCentral Regional Rail-Trail Project.

No details were given on how project nominees from Louisiana were solicited, vetted or nominated. At any rate, restoration of the Pontchartrain Basin is presumably the existing plan to do just that, which was already on the shelf in the office of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. I’m not familiar with the Urban Waters Initiative but I’m intrigued.

The announcement of 101 conservation projects reminded me of the old Disney film, 101 Dalmatians. One would hope that none of the gulf coast projects are dogs! 

TERRIBLE NEWS: Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Greater Than Grimmest Guesses

HuffingtonPost published an article by Seth Borenstein yesterday reporting that the US Department of Energy announced the shocking statistic that worldwide releases of greenhouse gases in 2010 were 6% higher than in 2009, exceeding the worst projections by climate scientists.

This announcement is one more nail in the coffin of coastal protection and restoration in Louisiana but it won’t impress the hard core climate change deniers. It’s a rare elected official in Louisiana who acknowledge’s that carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuel is a life-threatening global pollutant, as well as the source of fizz in soft drinks.

Loggerhead Bobby

NOVEMBER THIRD

HOW DOES BOBBY JINDAL FEEL ABOUT OVERT REPTILE PROFILING?

I still have what’s left of the skull of a once noble sea turtle that I found 40 years ago on the beach at Sapelo Island Geogia, the drowning victim of a shrimp trawl. I gingerly picked it up again today after reading an article by Cain Burdeau published this morning in The Times-Picayune.

Seeing the world through the eye socket of a loggerhead.

Burdeau reported for the AP that Governor Bobby Jindal has once again been officially contacted about a critical coastal issue by a large group of professional scientists. This time the subject is sea turtles, not sand berms.*

Sixty scientists have petitioned the Gov to overturn a 1987 state law that blocks state fisheries agents from enforcing the federal rule that requires shrimpers in federal waters to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). Trawls equipped with TEDs allow entrapped sea turtles to swim free through trap doors before drowning, like the former owner of my skull.

Until reading Burdeau’s article I had thought that Louisiana shrimpers were required, like their neighbor state colleagues, to use TEDs in their shrimp trawls used in both state and federal waters. In fact, Louisiana is the only holdout in the TEDs program that is overseen by the fisheries arm of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This law was passed in 1987, the same year that I became a single parent to my then seven year old daughter Emilie. I was also self employed and understandably highly distracted from coastal politics.

Here’s the on-air summary of Burdeau’s article that was broadcast today on Baton Rouge’s NPR affiliate WRKF-FM and posted on the station website:

Dozens of scientists are asking Gov. Bobby Jindal to scrap a 1987 law that bars state marine agents from enforcing federal rules requiring shrimpers to have special devices on their nets that allow ensnared sea turtles to swim to safety.

On Wednesday, more than 60 scientists sent a letter to Jindal urging him “to revisit and revise” Louisiana’s laws and “align with modern fishing and environmental practices.”

In 1987, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law banning state wildlife agents from enforcing federal laws requiring shrimp trawls to be equipped with the devices, known as turtle excluder devices. At the time, Louisiana’s fishermen were outraged by the new devices and claimed there was little evidence that they were catching sea turtles in their nets.

Jindal’s office did not immediately comment.

Not included in this summary is the important fact that Jindal vetoed a law passed last year by the legislature that would have overturned the 1987 law. I’m very curious about the candid views on this issue on the part of state fisheries agents and their boss, former state senator Robert Barham, now Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (WL&F).

My long experience working with the men and women in WL&F is that for the most part they serve as true professionals who take very seriously their mission to protect and sustain living resources, including sea turtles. It will be interesting to see whether the governor supports science and allows blatant reptile profiling!

*Sea turtles and sand berms are connected, not just because these magnificent creatures nest on barrier beaches. After the Macondo well blowout a number of sea turtles along Louisiana’s coast gave their lives, not to oil, but to the large dredge pumps moving sand to build the infamous Jindal/Nungesser sand berms.

NOVEMBER SECOND

Subsidence map by the late Roy Dokka, inset photo from Frank McMains with WRKF

Iles de Jean Charles project insults the intelligence of Native American residents of that doomed landscape

Back in March I reported having been interviewed by a wife and husband team of film makers from Peru and New York, respectively, who are documenting the poignant lives of the dwindling number of inhabitants of a sinking sliver of landscape in south Terrebonne Parish known as Isle de Jean Charles. Carmen Lopez and Evan Abramson* have done their homework and I detected far more insight than I expected from two Louisiana newbies.

Carmen Lopez and Evan Abramson on a recent filming trip to Kenya

I was reminded of my two new friends this morning when I heard a story about Iles de Jean Charles by Segan Wendland on Baton Rouge’s NPR affiliate station WRKF-FM 89.3. The report described a Quixotic attempt to save this doomed community, using chains of plastic rafts holding pots of marsh plants.

The America’s Wetland Foundation (AWF) recently hosted a press conference on site to showcase this so-called new technology. The documentary duo attended the event and interviewed some of the participants. They reported sensing that the hyperbolic project roll out may have had more to do with public relations than public safety.

Here’s a quote from Wendland’s interview with Buddy Boe, AWF Project Manager:

Boe says, “It’s an American tragedy if we let another Native American population lose their land, and it’s happening. So we’re here to create awareness, to build land, and to build a conscious mindset around the land that this is being allowed to happen – that we’re telling these communities that they have to move because they’re not being protected by this levee system.”

I’m particularly troubled by the implications of three of Boe’s comments: (1) ‘we’re here…to build land;’ (2) ‘this is being allowed to happen;’ and (2) ‘they have to move because they’re not being protected by this levee system.’

(1) anchoring plastic rafts is NOT building land;

(2) implies that the sinking of Iles de Jean Charles is a process that could somehow be prevented; and

(2) this levee system is the popular but ill-conceived Morganza-to-the Gulf (MTTG) project, a supposed barrier against the gulf that, in my opinion, will never be completed.

It’s true that desperate times call for desperate measures but (a) the defenders of the Alamo in 1836 were fighting on solid land; and (b) Santa Anna’s troops were puny compared to the Gulf of Mexico. Innovation is fine but floating plastic islands will not save Isle de Jean Charles and to offer false hope by implying otherwise is a serious public disservice.

*This post originally listed the husband of Carmen Lopez as Evan Cohen, rather than Abramson, his actual surname.

NOVEMBER FIRST

"Yo momma sleeps with muskrats!" "Oh yeah? Yo daddy likes beaver bitches!"

ARE NUTRIA IN LOUISIANA BADDER THAN THEIR MARYLAND COUNTERPARTS?

The nutria rat Myocaster coypus is the notorious invasive Argentine rodent that has plagued marshes, coastal forests and even artificial levees in south Louisiana since the 1930s. Since that time this marsh munching mammal has traveled around the world, including wetlands in Holland and in my home state of Maryland.

Relatively new evidence appears to indicate that nutria may play a larger role in ecosystem deterioration, at least in some parts of the Louisiana coast, than was previously recognized. For example, in North Shore wetlands between Hammond and Pontchatoula, experimental plots surrounded by nutria exclusion fences show luxuriant plant growth, indicating extremely high levels of nutria impacts to surrounding ‘control’ areas. This was discussed at the recent Basics of the (Pontchartrain) Basin conference in Hammond by SLU professor Gary Shaffer and his colleagues.

Ed Mouton with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LWL&F) oversees a coastwide nutria control program funded under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), which pays a significant bounty for each nutria killed, but is not intended to eliminate the orange-toothed buggers. My long term colleague Greg Linscombe, who was Mouton’s former mentor at LW&F, has told me on a number of occasions that nutria eradication in south Louisiana is out of the question and that the best we can do is to limit the critter’s population size.

Thus I was intrigued to see an article by Darryl Fears in the Washington Post that nutria eradication, rather than control has been adopted as official policy in Maryland, at least throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.*

Why is the eradication of Maryland nutria considered feasible but not in Louisiana? It occurs to me the answer may be fiscal and not ecological. The Maryland program is being overseen, not by wildlife biologists used to frugal budgets, but by agricultural officials (state and federal) who oversee deeper pocketed programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry mounted a boll weevil eradication program that has virtually eliminated the boll weevil from cotton fields in Louisiana and other southern states. That six-legged critter would seem to be at least as difficult to eradicate as the much more visible nutria.

Perhaps Bob Barham, Louisiana Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries, should ask for help from Mike Strain, newly re-elected Louisiana Ag and Forestry Commissioner.

*A coastal area between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays shared by Maryland, Delaware…and Virginia, as pointed out by a fellow Marylander with green eye shades after he noted that the original version of this post excluded Ol’ Virginny.

 

 

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  4. Stephen Faulkner says:

    The latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists online has an interesting open access article: Influence of coastal vegetation on the 2004 tsunami wave impact in west Aceh (http://www.pnas.org/content/108/46/18612.full). Complicated spatial interactions as expected, but forests in front of settlements significantly reduced casualties by up to 8%, with no significant effect on either structural damages or max flood distance. Forests behind settlements actually increased casualties, presumably from debris in backwash, acting as a barrier to escape, or being washed into the trees.

  5. Here’s an SAT-type question for all you smart coastal folks: The Central Wetlands are to hurricane protection what a padded steering wheel is to ___________.

  6. You are correct that fighting over one million or 35.8 million is hardly worth Congress’s time, but the politics behind the funding are important to Louisiana. The LCA projects are all classified as new start projects and require specific authorization by Congress before construction can start. Once a project is started, then annual funding can come from Congress, the President’s budget, or an internal Corps reprogramming effort.
    The FY12 budget provides the authorization for the new starts, but if there is no funding in FY12 then the projects will need to reauthorize as new starts in FY13 and money appropriated.

    Bigger question is if federal government does fund the LCA projects, is the State of Louisiana going to sign the required partnering agreements or will thise agreements fail like the Science and Technology agreement did?

  7. Len
    Re: Article about Central Wetlands. Are you as a scientist saying that you buy off on headline that states that rebuilding the Central Wetland is going to add to the New Orleans area hurricane protection?

    • John-
      The short answer is a resounding “Yes.”
      Earthen levees built high enough not to be overtopped by storm surge are incredibly expensive and they begin to sink and deteriorate the day they’re complete.
      If the soils in strategic parts of the central wetlands can be elevated back to sea level and irrigated with sufficient treated sewage and rainwater to maintain very low salinity conditions, they will support the growth of planted baldcypress saplings that will exceed 30 feet in 20 years. These trees are incredibly resilient to storm surge and very effective at absorbing wave energy. Dense stands of baldcypress trees will get progressively more effective over time at no cost, while building up the substrate surface..
      Len

      • Len
        Science is out there showing that trees located adjacent to levees will reduce wind driven wave heights. But science does not support that trees will reduce storm surge.

        I support idea of planting trees adjacent to levees on floodside as a potential extra line of defense against wind driven waves.

        To call trees on the protected side of levees a protection feature is a reach. If the 100 year levees of the Central Wetlands are slightly overtopped there is no “surge”, just a bowl filling up before potentially flooding St. Bernard Parish. If the 100 year levees are overtopped by a major event then trees could reduce some of the wind driven waves, but surge would still be the same and St. Bernard will be flooded.

        For example, model runs show a 27 foot surge hitting mature trees passed through the trees as a 27 foot increase in water on the other side. Flow speed was reduced slightly. But there was no reduction in the height of the water.

        Given sea level rise and subsidence, trees are not likely to be no cost to maintain.

        My point is simply that people need to understand the truth of what risks they are facing and not be lulled into believing that marsh and trees are going to protect them from a storm. The repeating of the urban myth by politicians, state and federal staff, NGO’s , and members of the public that restoring our coastal marshes is going to add to our protection from hurricanes is ultimately going to work against us when the next big storm shows up.

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        Carlton Dufrechou once amended a public comment the Lake Pontchartrian Basin Foundation had made. The basin originally claimed, as Len is doing here, that trees inside a levee could reduce storm surge and increase protection of lives and property. Since he is both a pilot an engineer, I used AA 191 at O’Hare in 1979 to explain why that belief is incorrect. He instantly saw my point, agreed, and amended their comment to the Corps, withdrawing that claim.

        When a guy like Carlton, sitting in his job at the time, disavows such a claim, that’s the end of the story.

        There may well be nice things about this project which justify it. However, protection from hurricanes isn’t among them.

  8. After so many years of selling his credentials to the oil industry and other extractive industries to produce papers with the results that they want, Dr. Scott could be described as a walking conflict of interest. His thinking on societal issues doesn’t go much beyond that of your average dittohead, cf. his comment on the Jim Engster program (and many more of the same ilk.)

  9. Gabrielle Bodin says:

    Hi Len! Check out http://www.urbanwaters.gov/ for information on the Urban Waters Initiative.

  10. Walt Sikora says:

    It seems to me a good control program for nutria = nutria andouille, as it can only be made in Louisiana. Anytime human demand for a natural resource increases, the supply inevitably goes down.

    Also while they are at it, bring back a market for nutria fur. It’s too bad that the PETA fruitcakes and the “political correctness leftists” have screwed that up. Perhaps they prefer that the animals be poisoned and wasted.

  11. piers chapman says:

    They tried controlling nutria in fenland areas of the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, but eventually agreed that the only solution was extermination. This took place during the 1980s and did work, but I’m sure it cost a bundle of money, with people being paid to trap the creatures. See http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/special/nutria/europe.htm.

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