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February 2012 Coastal Scuttlebutt

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Note: This post is normally updated daily by noon CST.

FEBRUARY FOURTEENTH

Astrology Blamed for Loss of Louisiana Coast

Remember when FLOTUS Nancy Reagan acknowledged that she scheduled the dates of her late husband Ron’s important meetings based on astrological advice?

My hat’s off to Eric Ralston for having spotted and posted yesterday in Bloomberg News the following intriguing quote in the executive ummary for managers of a technical report on sea level rise just released by the Louisiana Applied Coastal Engineering and Science (LACES) Office:

“Sea-level rise is caused by a variety of dynamic interactions, and is influenced by atmospheric, geologic, oceanic, and astrological changes, whether natural or anthropogenic.”

Given: (1) that Governor Jindal’s signature appears above all official documents issued from his office; (2) the governor’s history of once having participated in an exorcism; (3) his reverence for all things Reagan; and (4) his dismissal of the science of climate science and evolution; one must wonder whether this really was a typo, or perhaps a Freudian slip.

In his post Mr. Ralston reported bumping into our governor during the CPAC meeting in DC last weekend and asking him about the use of the term ‘astrological’ in the report. Rather than disclaim the use of the term, Jindal reportedly suggested that he (Ralston) speak to his (Jindal’s) coastal chief…that would be Garett Graves. No word on what he heard.

Bobby Jindal and I have at least two things in common; (1) as shown above, both he and I are of constant interest to law officers; and (2) we were both born under the elite sign of  Gemini. Here’s part of our horoscope for this Valentine’s Day, according to a web-based astrologer named Jennifer Angel:

…Your partner will appreciate any effort on your part to make Valentine’s Day special as they see how busy you are. A small gesture or token of appreciation will go a long way in showing them how much you care.

I’ll remember Mina Novelo; Supriya’s up to you, Bobby.

FEBRUARY THIRTEENTH

Government subsidized safety nets

Will there be a safety net for south Louisiana?

Last week presidential candidate Mitt Romney unintentionally inspired a broad conversation about the so-called government ‘safety net’ that he said protects the poor folks that he doesn’t worry about. This safety net turns out to be of much greater magnitude and importance than ‘Governor Willard’ wanted to acknowledge.

Yesterday I read a compelling article by Binyamin Appelbaum and Rebert Gebeloff in the New York Times under the title: Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It. The article describes the rapid expansion of government support over four decades. The beneficiaries of safety net services include all of us, even the most vocal opponents of government support on which we increasingly rely.

The NY Times article isn’t coastal but it’s relevant to the $50 billion Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan
for a Sustainable Coast, which represents the only plausible proposal on the table by which to save America’s Delta.

The article includes an impressive interactive graphic that shows the dramatic expansion of a specific group of government services between 1969 and 2009. The information is presented in high resolution spatial distribution, which reveals interesting geographic patterns. According to this graphic south Louisiana appears to be markedly less dependent on government services than many other regions.

I find this pattern intriguingly counterintuitive and I’d be interested to see how it would change if additional categories of government services were included. I’m thinking of FEMA disaster relief, Corps of Engineers flood protection, channel dredging, etc.

The majority of voters in Louisiana and the other red states are calling for smaller government, while becoming increasingly dependent on…and loath to forego…government services. According to the article, voters seem to understand that the rising budget imbalance is unsustainable but they won’t support shared sacrifice, in the form of either a smaller safety net or higher taxes.

A safety net of use to a future south Louisiana would have to acknowledge the unique needs of residents increasingly threatened by coastal sinking and climate change. I don’t see a way around the fact that sustaining south Louisiana would be contingent on a larger safety net…with a much finer mesh.

FEBRUARY TWELTH

Sen. Vitter grimly carries his Corps of Engineers voodoo doll into the committee room.

Will David Vitter dramatically influence Corps policy? Consider the consequences for coastal restoration.

On April 5, 2011 Bruce Alpert reported in The Times-Picayune that President Obama had just nominated Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick to replace Gen. Robert van Antwerp as commanding general of the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers. That’s a position of great interest to everyone who lives within the watershed of America’s River…the Mighty Mississippi, and especially those of us living within America’s Delta.

In May 25, 2011 Bostick was grilled by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Our junior senator David Vitter sits on this committee, as well as the Committee on Armed Services.

On June 17, 2011 Maj. Gen. Meredith (Bo) Temple assumed interim command of the corps, giving van Antwerp the chance to retire. On February 6, Ed Anderson reported in The Times-Picayune that Senator David Vitter, long a vituperative critic and thorn in the side of the corps, wants to give ultimate management authority over coastal projects to the state, reducing the corps’ authority to subservient status. Here’s a quote:

He said the bill, still being developed, would be effective for projects entered into after its passage. Vitter said the proposal “will save significant time and significant money” on construction.

Speaking to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Vitter said he also has called for a “fully detailed audit” of the corps by the Government Accountability Office, but conceded “that will not happen overnight.”

This raises many questions, such as on what basis should the feds provide 65% of the funding for coastal protection/restoration public works projects, in return for 35% of the authority? The more important question is how this change would affect the corps’ long established management authority over the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T), given that restoring the coast is ultimately a function of revised river management policy.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick

The corps is easy to vilify in terms of its intransigence, its inertia, its bureaucracy, its disregard for environmental issues, its reputation for cost overruns, its long intimate association with navigation and flood control interests, its deference to congressional politics, and on and on. The corps’ huge black eye from deadly levee failures during Katrina will long resonate in Louisiana.

Nevertheless, as a part of the Department of Defense and the executive branch of government, the corps must conform to federal law, especially with respect to environmental policy, e.g., the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. Thus, despite huge misgivings about the corps in terms of setting coastal policy, I have even less faith in coastal decisions and priorities controlled by my home state.

David Vitter has obviously not been a friend of the corps but neither for the most part has he been a friend of the Louisiana coast. I’ll never forget Vitter’s unsuccessful attempt in 2006 to overturn the corps’ denial of a permit for logging coastal forests on private land in Louisiana. He was siding with private property interests and against the best interests of the coast.

Meanwhile, the endless confirmation process drags along, showing the dysfunction on Capitol Hill and keeping the corps from having a real chief, not just a stand-in. Bostick seems to have a good understanding of critical issues. An Army report by David Vergun on February 9 implied that Bostick testified knowledgeably to the Senate Armed Service Committee about aging infrastructure problems (levees and dams). 

Bruce Alpert and Jonathan Tilove reported today in The Times-Picayune that (surprise, surprise) Bostick is under heavy criticism by David Vitter. Is he planning to derail Bostick’s confirmation and, if so, how could that possibly speed the effective implemention of Louisana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast? That’s a rhetorical question.

FEBRUARY ELEVENTH

Reality check re the Master Plan

Let's face the truth, folks.

On March 26 the draft 2012 Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast will be presented for approval to the state legislature. As I write this mini-post there are exactly two weeks left before the February 25th deadline to submit public comments on the plan to the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR).

Three public meetings were held to vett the Master Plan…in New Orleans, Houma and Lake Charles. I was unable to attend any of these meetings but I have a pretty good sense of the reaction to the plan, based on a January 30 article by Susan Buchanan in Louisiana Weekly and a February 9 article by Nikki Buskey in The Daily Comet.

The most substantive complaints about the $50 billion plan fall into two broad categories, doing either too little or too much in the backyards of various coastal residents. The too little complaint is that not enough money is budgeted for recreating sunken landscape with dredged sediments…and putting rocks along shorelines. The too much category involves strong local opposition to large sediment diversion projects.

The too little complaint is refuted on its face by the $17.9 billion allocated for landscape recreation. The too much complaint is refuted by the sophisticated science on which calls for these diversion projects is based.

Ground zero for subsidence and marsh collapse is the region to the east and west of Bayou Lafourche, shown in red on the above figure. In 1904 the residents of south central Louisiana committed an act of hari kiri by consenting to damming off Bayou Lafourche from the river at Donaldsonville. I have no idea how this decision was made or whether residents along the lower bayou were even consulted.* In any case their descendants are now paying the price for this shortsighted decision, which cannot be sustainably reversed by pumping in mud from Terrebonne Bay.

The decision to cut off the source of sediment that created and maintained the Barataria/Terrebonne basins was based on primitive coastal science of 1904. Today we have no such excuse. If this plan collapses because of opposition based on provincial thinking and the NIMBY syndrome we will have only ourselves to blame.

*The concept of reconnecting the bayou to the river, with stepwise expansions of the flow volume was described in this post from November 2008 and this one from June 2009.

FEBRUARY TENTH

1755 Map from Tomas Lopez

Hemispheric hegemony at its finest!

Since July 2010 I have shared both heart and hearth with ‘Mina’ Novelo, who was born and raised in Mexico and who is fiercely proud of her native American heritage (Mayan, Navajo, Apache). Among her many influences on my thinking Ms. Novelo has sparked an interest in the history of the Western Hemisphere, to which my European ancestors were late arrivals in the 1800s.,,some of hers got here around 12,000 years ago.

I’m currently waiting patiently for her to finish reading 1491, a pre-Columbian description of our half of the Blue Marble by Charles C. Mann, so that I can read it as well before we both proceed to read its sequel 1493 by the same author. The latter book describes Cristobal Colon’s huge impacts on the New World.

Given that background and my over-riding coastal interest I was first amazed, then perplexed and finally amused to read this blurb yesterday in HuffingPost (later corrected by Jeff Amy with AP) about a tongue-in-cheek proposal by Mississippi State Solon Steve Holland to change the ancient name of The Golfo de Mexico to the Gulf of America.

According to Holland, his bill was not serious but an attempt to parody the anti-immigration political shift in his home state. The furor his proposal created prompted a facetious suggestion to rename the Mississippi River to the ‘Lincoln River.’

Speaking of geographic name changes, I’m a strong proponent of renaming the largest alluvial features in all of North America to America’s River* and America’s Delta. On the other hand, Mina reminds me that the Amazon and its delta could also contend for those titles. Thus the modifiers ‘North’ and ‘South’ may need to be added.

*The name ‘Mississippi River’ is relatively recent and lacks the tradition, history and significance of the name ‘Golfo de Mexico.’

FEBRUARY NINTH

Deltaic denial v. designing with and around water

New Orleans, published in New York, dated 1862 by HARPERS WEEKLY

As the old saying goes, denial is not just a river in Egypt. I’m always intrigued to hear defensive denial by vested folks of phenomena that seem obvious to a non-partisan observer.

Climate change is an obvious recent example but ever since I first arrived in Louisiana in 1973 I’ve been struck by the implicit denial by its residents that New Orleans is a coastal (deltaic) city.

During three centuries of run-up to Katrina urban development in the Crescent City proceeded in the least appropriate and most unsustainable fashion for its deltaic setting. During that time, the river that created the landscape and the lake that form its northern boundary have become more and more invisible to city residents. Out of sight, out of mind.

David WaggonnerThe unanswered question is whether it would be possible to change direction at this late date, now that 50% of the urban landscape is below sea level.

Since Katrina, a distinguished NOLA architect and urban planner named David Waggonner has been exploring that issue, interacting with and picking the brains of authorities from other delta cities in China, Holland and elsewhere. Yesterday a meeting on this subject (the Water Synergy Project) was held in New Orleans, hosted by the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD), from Austin* and Waggonner and Ball. Here’s a descriptive blurb from the invitation to the meeting:

Companies from New Orleans to Baton Rouge are coming together on February 8th to share their best ideas on how to address critical watershed challenges in the region. Join with other southern Louisiana business leaders for the Kickoff Meeting of the Louisiana Water Synergy Project. This structured forum provides an opportunity for you to work with other watershed users to identify water quality, quantity, and storm water management issues in the New Orleans to Baton Rouge Mississippi River Corridor, find solutions that work, and get them implemented. Find out what is new about this project, and how participation can provide direct benefits to your company and to the communities where you operate. Key project elements include:

+ Cross-industry collaboration, where minimal time investment yields high value returns

+ Industry connection to public initiatives, creating a voice for industry

+ Innovative financing for water system energy efficiency retrofits 

Although I was unable to attend this meeting, by sheer coincidence NOLA expat Don Boesch kindly forwarded this link to an 11 minute YouTube presentation on redesigning New Orleans as a sustainable delta city with water as a theme…by David Waggonner!

The talk was filmed in November 2010 but it’s just as relevant now as it was two years ago and I strongly recommend watching it. Here’s a quote from the text accompanying the video-clip:

David Waggonner is the president of Waggonner & Ball Architects, an award- winning practice located in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is also the initiator of Dutch Dialogues, an intercultural, interdisciplinary and intergenerational exchange between Dutch engineering and design professionals and their American counterparts focused on water-based urban design. Over the course of three Dutch Dialogue conferences in the years after Hurricane Katrina, David has articulated a new vision of New Orleans as a delta city living with — rather than against — water to address long-term development of urban character and form.

I first met David after Katrina in 2006 and have the highest regard for his esthetic and ecological vision that is based on practical ways of working with, rather than fighting against nature. This video clip should be required viewing for everyone who works at the Corps of Engineers NOLA District office on Leake Avenue.

*Headed by a long term friend and colleague Andy Mangan.

Photo from the blog of Douglas L. Hoffman, a dyed-in-the-wool denier of sea level rise.

FEBRUARY EIGHTH

Rising expectations in the face of rising seas

When the state legislators convene in March they will face the usual mountain of frivolous decisions, like approving special license plates for lovers of crawfish etouffe or Catahoula hounds. The two discussions that will actually justify their paychecks are: (1) balancing the state checkbook, which I understand is overdrawn by almost a billion bucks; and (2) approving the 2012 Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast.

Yesterday, The Advocate published an editorial in strong support of the plan. This endorsement will hopefully influence the thinking of coastal officials whose provincial constituents will strongly object to specific aspects of the plan that would alter their backyards.

For what it’s worth, the Master Plan has my strong support, not because it’s perfect or even close to it, but because it’s the first in a long series of blueprints for saving the coast that is actually based on objective science. I’ve been working on a critique of the plan but my concerns are far outweighed by its centerpiece, the call for aggressive east and west bank sediment diversions from the river in Plaquemines Parish.

These diversion projects are the single most important feature of the plan but they are strongly opposed by Parish Officials, such as P.J. Hahn, whose objections are expressed in this Op/Ed column recently published in The Times-Picayune. His opinions are classic examples of why nothing of significance has so far been achieved with respect to science based ecological engineering on a scale that can make a difference.

On the subject of coastal projects informed by science, among the most important uncertainties that stand in the way of restoring a sustainable coast is the space-specific combined rates at which the sea is rising and the land is sinking. The fact that both sea level rise and subsidence rates are not linear but are changing with time adds to the difficulty of predicting the outcomes of alternative scenarios.

In yesterday’s mini-post (scroll down) I mentioned that the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) just issued a special science report on the related subjects of  sea level rise and subsidence. In today’s The Times-Picayune Mark Schleifstein summarized this report, which I read through and found very impressive, although I’m not qualified to review the conclusions in detail.

I’m very curious why this report on sea level rise was issued several weeks after and separate from the Master Plan (it may become an appendix) and why the state is inviting specific public comments distinct from the plan. It’s interesting to note that anthropogenic climate change is mentioned in the report, along with numerous references to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). No such citations are included in the Master Plan, probably for political reasons.

I’m curious about the fact that some especially well-known researchers on sea level rise and subsidence were not cited in this report. These include, among others, Mike Blum formerly at LSU, now with Conoco-Phillips in Houston; Tor Tornqvist at Tulane; Jeff Williams at USGS; and David B. Zilkoski, with the National Geodetic Survey (perhaps retired). I’m told by Tornqvist that he did have significant input to the Master Plan and the information included in the sea level rise report. I wouldn’t be surprised to see future comments from some of these folks…or even better, guest posts. Sure enough, see the comment below by Alex Kolker at LUMCON and Tulane.

Very high subsidence rates reported by the late Roy Dokka from LSU were also not mentioned in the report but I’m told that his data were discussed during preparation of the Master Plan and that his conclusions were challenged as transient and not long term.

One final note: Perhaps I missed it but I didn’t see a discussion in the sea level rise report of the distinction between deep subsidence and settling and compression of ‘squishy’ surface sediments. 

FEBRUARY SEVENTH

Modified from NY Times photo...by the addition of swim fins.

Going down

If you’re old enough to remember when elevators still had operators who called out, “Going up!” or “Going down!” you may also remember seeing continuous marshes on the Gulf side of the old Leeville Bridge in the early 70s, during the last leg of the drive to Grand Isle.

According to this report by the late Roy Dokka, the intervening 40 years since 1972 has seen the landscape in the Leeville and Cocodie areas sink by 6.3 mm/year, for a total of about 10 inches…independent of sea level rise. At that rate subsidence between now and 2100 will amount to 88 x 6.3mm. In other words we’ll have sunk deeper in doo doo by 55.4 cm, or 22 inches.

This morning the Associated Press issued a notice that the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) released a new report yesterday predicting that south Louisiana will be three feet lower with respect to the Gulf of Mexico than it is today, as the combined result of subsidence and sea level rise.

A back of the envelope calculation suggests that this report, which is obviously intended to emphasize risk, is either significantly too optimistic, or insufficiently pessimistic.

The draft 2012 Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast suggests that sea level will rise by 0.45 M (1.4 ft) by the year 2060, or about 0.03 ft./yr. At that rate, 88 years from now global mean sea level will have risen by over 2.5 ft.

By adding Roy Dokka’s sinking prediction of 22 inches (1.8 ft) and the rising Gulf, if Grand Isle still exists in the year 2100 the Mayor’s office will be 4 1/3 feet, not 3 feet lower than today.

FEBRUARY SIXTH 

Landscape architecture at LSU goes coastal

This concept could save billions in cost, maintenance, ecological damage and public safety. How much of the 72 miles of hurricane levees in the $4 billion Morganza to the Gulf project could consist of Chenieres Faux?

On February 4 The Times-Picayune published a glowing tribute to the LSU School of Landscape Architecture and its founder and namesake, the late Robert Reich. The article, by John Pope, was picked up by The Advocate yesterday and the following quotes caught my eye:

Even though he is still in school, (undergraduate Josh) Brooks has experience with big-scale design. Last year, he won an award from the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards for a revitalization project covering 10 square miles in the Lower 9th Ward and Chalmette. It focused on ecosystem restoration and included swampland restoration, kayaking and fishing.

…Graduates of the LSU program show a strong affinity for the region and its culture…a fact that is underscored by the school’s affiliation with LSU’s Coastal Sustainability Studio, an interdisciplinary project in which people study and respond to issues involving settlement, coastal restoration, flood protection and the economy.

These quotes reminded me of my old days as a faculty member at LSU’s Center for Wetland Resources during the 70s and 80s, when my colleagues and I sometimes worked with faculty and students in Landscape Architecture who shared our interest in using natural forms, processes and plants to restore coastal Louisiana. One of these folks was Dan Earle, whose Ph.D. dissertation was earned in both Landscape Architecture and Coastal Ecology.

A few years ago I collaborated on a coastal design project idea with Buck Abbey, a long term Landscape Architecture faculty member. We proposed the concept of creating ‘Chenieres Faux,’ wooded storm protection levees designed to mimic the scale and function of the natural stranded beach ridges (Chenieres) that gave rise to the term Chenier Plain in SW Louisiana. The Chenieres Faux concept was outlined here on December 9, 2009 and expanded here on March 10, 2010.

This idea has yet to be tested in the field but I’m stubborn enough to believe that it has merit and will one day be included in the official coastal Master Plan.

FEBRUARY FIFTH

Coastal implications of impending Macondo blowout trial

David Hammer and Rebecca Mowbray translating legal gobbledygook for readers of The Times-Picayune

Rebecca Mowbray and David Hammer deserve kudos for a pair of feature articles in today’s The Times-Picayune describing the incredibly complex and high stakes Macondo well blowout trial, an oily spectacle that may or may not take place in the Big Greasy right after Mardi Gras.

The outcome of the legal decisions are of huge interest, and not just to the owners of a large number of pin striped suits and twice that many tassled loafers soon to be spotted at Bourbon and Canal. Implementation of the first phase of the 2012 Coastal Master Plan to restore the coast is fundamentally contingent on the fines levied against the disaster.

My hat’s off to these two intrepid reporters who collaborated to explain to legalese-challenged readers the guts of the disputed issues under the Oil Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and other statutes.

Mowbray’s article describes what’s involved if a settlement is not reached and the trial proceeds as planned. Here are some quotes:

At stake are billions of dollars in damages that could be awarded by the court to help Louisiana repair its economy and fix its eroding coastline. The case will also contain a huge fight over punitive damages, which are levied above and beyond documented damages in an attempt to punish the offender. If punitive damages are awarded that are more than the actual damages in the case, the issue could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It will be the biggest environmental litigation in the country’s history,” said Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who serves as co-coordinating counsel for state interests with Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

“It’s got to be one of the most complex cases in history, not to mention the amount of money involved, which is very large,” said Edward Sherman, a Tulane University law professor who studies complex litigation.

The goal of the trial will be to determine the proportion of fault among the involved companies, a decision that will in turn be used to calculate how much each should pay in penalties and damages.

Hammer’s article describes the significant possibility of a universal settlement, which would moot the entire trial. Here’s a quote:

Such a settlement would exceed what BP has set aside for future spill-related costs. But it would also snuff out the uncertainty of a protracted trial — a stock-market bugaboo — and it would still probably save the oil giant about $15 billion off the maximum fines it could face.

Whatever the dollar amount of the ultimate penalties, if a settlement is not achieved, whatever the outcome of the trial it will likely be challenged by the plaintiffs or defenders, resulting in an interminable appeals process that could take years. I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime you probably shouldn’t consume more than 3,000 Kcals of snacks this evening.

FEBRUARY FOURTH

Coastal ‘Superbowl’

Mississippi River Alluvial Accretors v. Gulf of Mexico Inundators

Superbowl XLVI in Indianapolis continues a competitive series that began in Los Angeles in January 1967. A much more serious ‘Coastal Superbowl’ series began in Baton Rouge in 1989, with the official kickoff of Louisiana’s coastal restoration program.

Twenty-two years later, the 2012 CS XXII features the same formidable opponents, a river team called the Mississippi River Alluvial Accretors (MRAAs) v. an ocean team called the Gulf of Mexico Inundators (GOMIs). Whereas the 2012 Superbowl game in Indianapolis may be the most watched TV event ever, the 2012 Coastal Superbowl will receive little national attention.

Potential spectators include 310 million Americans, 306 million of whom live outside of Louisiana. Most of these folks won’t pay attention to our game because: (A) the pace is more tedious and the rules more complicated than cricket; and (B) because few of them realize that they have a stake in the outcome of the game.

CS XXII will, as always, be played out on the home field in America’s Delta, a crumbling seven thousand year old edifice that cannot survive another fifty years without a major renovation even more ambitious than the post-Katrina rebuild of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas know that the ocean players have bulked up on global warming steroids, while the perpetually injured river team has been hamstrung by levees, dams, navigation channels and oil field canals; bound from head to toe with red tape; and doped up on political painkillers and scientific ignorance.

Going into the 2012 competition the ocean team has a perfect record of 21 to 0…but the game has always been rigged. The ocean guys play with no rules other than the laws of physics. In contrast, the river boys are penalized for every attempt to move the ball downfield by calling plays that involve major sediment diversions from the river into the delta. In other words the MRAAs have no significant offensive plays and the team is forced to rely solely on defensive measures, like leaky hurricane levees.

I know considerably less about football than about coastal science but even this rank novice knows that neither the Giants nor the Patriots could possibly win Superbowl XLVI without a quarterback willing and able to go on the offense and to pass the ball. Multiple lines of defense are fine and dandy but hunkering down behind ridges and levees won’t ever push back the sea. It’s time for some offense, folks!

While watching the Superbowl contemplate the defeatist game plan promoted by Plaquemines Parish head coach Billy Nungesser and articulated by his defensive coordinator P.J. Hahn in an Op/Ed guest column in The Times-Picayune. Both Nungesser and Hahn are dead set against sediment diversions, the ONLY play that could possibly win the game over the GOMIs.

FEBRUARY THIRD

Wanna' fight the system? Change the law.

Oil cleanup response effort criticized

The Macondo well blowout on April 20, 2010 triggered an official response by state and federal agencies known as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, to document and quantify in dollar terms the ecological damage done. The ultimate fine against BP and its fellow perps will be based on what must seem to the public like an interminable and overly bureaucratic NRDA process.

An article by Benjamin Alexander-Bloch in The Times-Picayune describes frustration over what some see as insufficient public influence on the decisions being made, including the identification of two Louisiana projects to jump-start the recovery effort.

One project will spend $28 million to deposit oyster cultch material on six public seedbeds in St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Lafourche, Jefferson and Terrebonne parishes and to upgrade the state’s oyster hatchery on Grand Isle. The second project is supposed to create 104 acres of wetlands to an existing restoration project in Plaquemines’ Lake Hermitage, using sediment pumped from the Mississippi River.

At recent public meetings in Chalmette and Belle Chasse, residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish and environmental NGOs complained that local expertise was being ignored with respect to these projects and that not enough money had been allocated. A friend who bears the scars of many years’ toil in the coastal agency trenches sent the following practical advice about the criticisms described in the article:

Every time there is a big oil spill the same criticisms of the oil spill restoration process are brought out by the public. Unless the law is changed, these criticisms are moot for the following three reasons. 

1) The idea that the NRDA process should be faster is incompatible with the notion that there should be more public input.

2) The responsible party (BP) must agree to the restoration measures proposed by the agencies. Failure to agree means that the agencies must litigate. It is very unlikely that a responsible party would agree to contract out to a group of “fishers,” restoration work for which it would be legally responsible.

3) The federal agencies have their own mandates and responsibilities under the NRDA federal statute. The staffs of the different agencies try to work things out among themselves, but the agency bosses often have their own ideas about how things should be done.

If citizens want the NRDA process to function better, they need to understand how it works and/or call on their representatives to change the law.

My sympathy in this case lies with the agency folks, who seem to be making a good faith effort to balance limited funds and local interests. In terms of the February 14 deadline for public comment, I would recommend allocating small portion of the $28 million allocated for oyster enhancement used to develop a science-based plan to create a system of oyster reef sanctuaries throughout coastal Louisiana. Such a system of elevated reefs would be off limits for harvesting and they would provide sustainable natural storm protection as well as a source of larvae.

FEBRUARY SECOND 

Cutting oil subsidies could cut greenhouse gas emissions by half!

Fatih Birol (l); Loren Scott (r)

The pervasive political power of oil and gas interests in Louisiana is so profound as to influence every move that our officials make. This reminds me of the chillingly haunting song ‘I’ll be watching you,’ sung here by its composer Sting and The Police.

The cloud of big oil always hangs over the State Capitol, generating a pervasive paranoia about even whispering such terms as greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, global warming and renewable energy. In yesterday’s mini-post (scroll down) I mentioned that the 2012 Comprehensive Coastal Master Plan text tiptoes carefully around such terms, so as to avoid antagonizing the Louisiana legislators who will soon decide whether or not to approve the plan.

Our politicos aren’t the only folks in Louisiana who eschew discussing the urgent coastal need for a gradual phaseout of fossil fuel. Lauren C. Scott is a prominent Louisiana economist who often carries the water for the petrochemical industry and who consistently denies the reality of climate change.

Fatih Birol is the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, a prominent global energy and economic authority, who understands the validity of climate change and its dire implications. His new study shows that a huge reduction in greenhouse gases would result if governments quit subsidizing fossil fuel consumption  and let the free market operate.

Birol’s analysis was described in The Guardian on January 19 and Matthew Yglesias posted a provocative essay about its implications in Slate Magazine on January 26. Here’s a quote:

…in 2010 the world spent $409 billion on subsidizing the production and consumption of fossil fuels, dwarfing the word’s $66 billion or so of subsidies for renewable energy. Phasing fossil fuel subsidies out would be sufficient to accomplish about half the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needed to meet the goal of preventing average world temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius.

The proposal to reduce subsidies for offshore oil and gas production as a means of balancing the federal budget is supported by Birol’s analysis but I’ll guarantee that it will be opposed in Louisiana, which grows more vulnerable to global warming each year. Wouldn’t it be great if the billions of bucks given to Exxon-Mobil, Shell, etc. to inspire more drilling were instead applied to the $50 billion price tag to save America’s Delta?
.

FEBRUARY FIRST

Jumbo in the room

Educating Louisiana students…and legislators

State legislators will assemble in Baton Rouge on March 12 for the first day of the regular legislative session. They face at least four critical tasks, three of which have serious coastal implications:

I) finding revenues to pay the bills that will arrive during FY 2012-13…including important coastal obligations;

II) reforming and possibly privatizing the administration of the state retirement system;

III) reforming the state’s public education system in ways that will affect the ability of teachers to either inform or misinform the next generation of voters in south Louisiana; and

IV) authorizing the implementation of the 2012 Comprehensive Coastal Master Plan (MP), the effectiveness of which is fundamentally contingent on large and locally unpopular sediment diversion projects.

The first goal, passing House Bill 1, will probably be dragged out to the final day of the session on June 4 and will be sausage making of the ugliest sort.

Goal number two has no direct coastal implications, other than possibly affecting the ability of the editor of LaCoastPost to maintain a roof over his head. In today’s The Advocate Will Sentell reported on Governor Jindal’s thoughts on goals two and three, retirement and education reform, as expressed yesterday to the business community in Baton Rouge.

Goal three has huge coastal implications in terms of future coastal voters. Here’s a quote that gives me heartburn:

“We have got an opportunity to transform the way we educate children in this state,” Jindal said.

The governor’s use of the term ‘transform’ is worrisome, given his stated opposition to fundamental scientific principles on which coastal restoration depends. That’s by way of a segue to a January 18 article by Lynn Peeples in HuffingtonPost. She described the fact that American high school science teachers face a headache with respect to teaching the children of disbelieving conservative parents about human caused climate change…as well as evolution. This is especially ironic, given the increasing rate of sea level rise (SLR) along the gulf coast, which is acknowledged in the MP.

On a brighter note, I was astonished to see a report by Matthew Albright in today’s Daily Comet that an outside review board gives Louisiana high schools fairly high marks for science teaching…astoundingly including the life sciences and evolution!

Here are some key quotes:

“The life-science standards are actually quite rigorous,” Porter-Magee said. “They actually teach evolution fairly well.”

Still, the authors have harsh words for what they say is a creationist influence in the state’s science classes. “The Louisiana science standards are reasonably challenging and comprehensive, but they suffer from a devastating flaw,” the summary for the state’s report says. “Thanks to the state’s 2008 Science Education Act, which promotes creationism instead of science, the standards (especially for biology and life science) are haunted by anti-science influences that threaten biology education in the state.”

The Science Education Act,** which allows teachers to supplement state-assigned textbooks with other materials, has drawn widespread criticism from science educators who said the bill would allow creationist teaching in public schools.

“The interesting thing is that there’s this bill that’s widely criticized by science experts, but at the same time the material they assign is pretty strong,” Porter-Magee said. “This is something that’s going to be interesting to watch as things go on.”

From a coastal standpoint, the most important goal is number four, approval of the Master Plan, which, it turns out, omits even a single reference to the coastal elephant in the room, human-caused climate change and global warming.

Not using these terms in the text of the MP was doubtless a strategic decision to avoid raising a red flag that could jeopardize approval of the plan. The omission creates a truly awkward situation in which politics trumps reality…but legislative approval is the paramount goal.

*Which was strongly promoted by Jindal and strongly supported by state legislators.

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  15. Kelly Haggar says:

    “The beneficiaries of safety net services include all of us, even the most vocal opponents of government support on which we increasingly rely.”

    I submit the recall effort in WI against Gov Scott Walker is a good predictor of the next trend. If he is retained, I’ll take that as a sign that enough financial reality has dawned to allow a reasonable way forward. If he gets the boot then denial and the protection of privilege is as yet too strong for meaningful reform. Since Walker’s side has won the first three engagements (his initial election on a platform to do what he did; passage of the reform package despite the runaway Senators; winning the Supreme Court seat used as a proxy by the anti-Walker faction), he will likely survive.

    Closer to home, we’ll have our own series of “Walkerism” starting next month.

    As for the Coast itself, it’s “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer” that we cannot execute any meaningful fraction of whatever our plan turns out to be without MASSIVE outside dollars . . . just one of the many reasons why I believe the best thing we can do is move further north. My hunch is that La in 2100 will look like the Blum/Roberts prediction.

  16. Jason Theriot says:

    Len,

    The Corp’s “no outlet” philosophy for the Mississippi River at the turn of the 20th century might explain cutting off Bayou Lafourche for its source. Other local experts from Lafourche probably have good documentation of the actual decision in 1904, but your readings may want to consult with Marty Reuss’s book, Designing the Bayou: Controlling the Atchafalaya, 1800-1995 (2004)

    Jason Theriot

  17. Kelly Haggar says:

    This came in at 2:49 pm today, kmh:

    Louisiana Applied Coastal Engineering and Science Division of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA-LACES)

    LACES SEA-LEVEL RISE RECOMMENDATIONS

    The Louisiana Applied Coastal Engineering and Science Division of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA-LACES) is releasing for public comment a draft technical report outlining recommendations for anticipating sea-level rise impacts on Louisiana’s coast. The paper outlines an approach to assist coastal planners and managers when addressing sea level rise in future restoration and protection projects.

    Based on an analysis of the available scientific literature on the topic, the draft report recommends that State restoration project planners and designers plan for a 1-meter (3.3’) mean rise in the sea level of the Gulf of Mexico by 2100 compared to the late 1980s and that analyses be bounded by global sea level rise ranges of 0.5-1.5 meters (1.4’-4.9’) by 2100.

    The report additionally recommends that these assumptions be combined with local geological and ecological processes, such as subsidence and marsh vertical accretion, when calculating the relative elevation of coastal wetlands for project planning and design. The specific procedure for calculating local sea level rise is detailed in the report.

    The full Technical Report and a corresponding Summary for Managers can be accessed on the CPRA website at LACES SEA-LEVEL RISE RECOMMENDATIONS [http://coastal.louisiana.gov/index.cfm?md=pagebuilder&tmp=home&pid=240]. CPRA-LACES invites comments on both documents. We are opening a 30-day public comment period beginning on Monday, February 6th that will remain open through midnight Central Standard Time on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012. The website contains instructions for submitting comments to CPRA-LACES. The draft technical report and recommendations will be revised as necessary to account for comments received and a copy of the final report and recommendations will be made available on the CPRA website when complete.

  18. There is actually good reason to think that the rate of subsidence in some areas in Louisiana has actually slowed in recent year. We recently put out a paper that showed a strong relationship between subsidence at Grand Isle, oil production in South Louisiana and coastal wetland loss. One big piece of news from this is that the subsidence and wetland loss curves very closely track the oil production curve. We are certainly not the first to think of this idea, but we were able show it quite explicitly. Furthermore, our work also shows that wetland loss and subsidence rates have dramatically slowed as oil production has slowed in recent years. This may good news for coastal restoration it suggests that subsidence rates, at least at Grand Isle, are back to their pre-drilling levels of a few mm/yr, rather than the ~16 mm/yr the area experienced in the late 1960 and 1970s. This paper was published in Geophysical Research Letters and I’d be happy to send anyone who asks a copy.
    -Alex Kolker, LUMCON.

    • Kelly Haggar says:

      Faulting is an episodic event so averaging rates over time is problematic. So is attributing fault movement to petrol activity, which is essentially Morton’s position. It’s more of a corelation exercise than a causation exercise. No one I know will bet on when the faults will next move. Dokka documents high rates and slow periods; N.O. East had what amounted to a 30 year earthquake instead of a 3 minute quake.

      The orginal research in this area is probably the 1984 Zerflew and Zilkoski NGS paper on the benchmarks in Orleans Parish. That paper was strictly an observation. They noted all the benchmarks were off and all were low. Z & Z did not attempt to explain why – they just found them all to be low. That’s why Dokka got interested in places which had sunk but lacked any the usual explantions for land loss. That led to his final paper in July of 2011. The Z & Z paper was why Chatry of the New Orleans Corps made his “command decision” in 1985 to build the new levee work at the correct elevation but leave the finished ones at their last elevation without augmentation.

      The DHH Dokka slides Len cited are from 2008; some of them are from variations of his 2006 slides at NOGS.

      A more recent set from 2010 is “Roy K. Dokka, Louisiana’s Coast is on life-support. Can the Coast be Saved? An August 26th, 2010 Presentation to the LSU Law School,” available at: http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/climate/docs/dokka-2010-coastal-class.pptx

    • Len

      There already is discussion of climate change, sea level rise and other environmental factors associated to climate change in Appendix C of the Master Plan.

  19. coastal whiz kid says:

    I too like the analogy to the Stupor Bowl and the comment of threading the needle between “the divergence of navigation and delta-building” the paper you mentioned last week by that former Corps guy sends navingation down the present channel and delta building sediment down the Atchafalaya to be deposited in the shallow water of Atchafalaya Bay

  20. Kelly Haggar says:

    Who knew there were so many Republicans in China? Or that carbon could be so tightly linked to begging for a loan extension? I’m betting the Chinese win this fight.

    kmh

    (Reuters) – The Chinese government said on Monday it has barred the country’s airlines from joining a European Union scheme to charge for carbon emissions from flights into and out of Europe and prohibit airlines from charging customers extra because of the EU plan.

    The hardening of the dispute, which comes a week before Chinese and EU leaders hold a summit next week, could potentially subject Chinese airlines to fines or prohibitions on use of EU airports.

    The aviation row also comes as euro zone countries have looked to China, with its big holdings of foreign exchange reserves, for a show of economic support while they grapple with the latest phase of their debt crisis.

    The announcement from the central government’s State Council, or cabinet, bolstered China’s opposition to the plan — intended to help curb greenhouse gases from aviation that are adding to global warming.

    It said Chinese airlines would need approval if they want to join in the EU airlines emissions plan, which Beijing has already denounced as an unfair trade barrier.

    “China hopes Europe will act in the light of the broader issues of responding to global climate change, the sustainable development of international aviation and Sino-European ties, strengthening communication and coordination to find an appropriate solution acceptable to both sides,” an unnamed official from China’s civil aviation authority said, according to the announcement, issued by the official Xinhua news agency.

  21. Kelly Haggar says:

    Avondale getting 750-acre, $60 million racetrack
    http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2012/01/west_bank_getting_750-acre_60.html#incart_mce

    “The track’s designers faced a daunting challenge to build a racetrack on a former cypress swamp without having the pavement buckle like a Lakeview street.

    The solution was to mix 200,000 tons of fly ash, a byproduct from coal-fueled power plants, with the first several feet of clay beneath the track.

    ‘It basically turns the ground into concrete,’ Wright said. ‘It’s expensive, but it’s what you have to do if you don’t want your racetrack to look like a typical street in southeastern Louisiana’.”

    Reading that ignited my whimsy fuse. Does red mud have similar properties? The gyp pile in Ascension sandwiched between the high dollar subdivision and the new elementary school? What other industrial waste can we incoroprate into coastal planning? Is it like concrete while it sets? Can it be molded into shapes? What’s the angle of repose?

    Ran into an out-of-state lawyer at at conference a few years back. He had skipped an afternoon session to drive around New Orleans, off the tourist path. At dinner that night he said he was surprised to find that Katrina had not just dissolved the levees and flodded the town but had gone on to buckle the streets in Lakeview. We locals were surprised to learn that as well. Once he realized Katrina had nothing to do with the streets he asked how anything stayed together down here. The “we get a load of river sand every year to fill in the low spots in the yard” stories just floored him. “You people are NUTS to keep living down here!”

    • Coastcaster says:

      Beware the purveyors of fly ash (and red mud) WASTE. It may, or may not work to stabilize the surface (or make a functional levee core) and should be thoroughly tested for that purpose prior to buying the goods (or accepting it for free). The fly ash vehicle landing at Elmer’s Island was a good try but a hilarious failure which, in that environment, was a likely outcome.

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        OK, let’s set aside the whimsy.

        The little I know about red mud is from the CWPPRA demonstration project 10 years ago, which as I recall was cancelled early in the small scale test.

        Of course red mud is a “WASTE” (as is the gyp pile) which is why I’ve always thought Len’s attraction to using it as a substitute for levee clay was unfortunate.

        Fat levee clay weighs 1.569 tons/cu yd so just having so many SDEs of material by volume isn’t emough. Strength, density, shear resistence,and a lot of similar factors must be taken into account. Of course it’d be also useful to have levee material which isn’t toxic.

        Next month I’m going to a joint La-Miss-Ala Sea Grant CLE on coastal issues, especially the “public trust” doctrine. If there’s anything apt for this blog’s issues I’ll post an update. However, I doubt there’s much new law here.

  22. Coastcaster says:

    Excellent Super Bowl analogy, Len.

    A MRAA Hall of Fame-caliber QB would recognize the divergence of navigation and delta-building downfield and thread the needle for a big coastal win.

  23. coastalgirl says:

    The basis of comparison for the Master Plan are the Future Without Action maps which are based on a moderate SLR of 0.8 ft and a less optimistic SLR of 1.5 ft over a 50-yr period (along with other environmental (meterological, geomorphological) projections).

  24. skip2mylieu says:

    Re: large and locally unpopular sediment diversion projects.

    Coastal Restoration is like alcoholism. The short term effects of trashing the coast feel good, but it is very bad for everyone in the long term. Moreover, quitting the destruction of our coastline is painful in the short term, but very beneficial in the long haul.

  25. Len,

    I doubt the omission of any mention of climate change/global warming from the Draft Master Plan was to placate the legislature. They’ve shown no willingness to buck the Governor on anything. The more salient reason is likely the same motivator for all the Governor’s decisions – his political ambition. Maintaining his standing among the far-right, anti-science wing of the GOP, as well as allies like Rick Perry (and their mutual owners in the oil business)is likely far more important to the Governor than the opinions of even the most Neanderthal of legislators, and the more probable reason for the glaring omission in the draft Master Plan. Sea-level rise is discussed (it’s impossible not to), but there’s a potential political cost for the refusal to discuss why sea levels are rising – those in Congress who believe in science will be less comfortable with a Louisiana-led restoration effort (which isn’t to say they won’t in the end support it, because unlike the Tea Partiers, most of these folks really do put the public interest first.)

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