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April 2012 Coastal Scuttlebutt

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Note: this mini-post is normally updated daily by noon CDT

APRIL FOURTEENTH

A doomed ship and a doomed campaign

Bobby Jindal recall campaign and the Titanic

Exactly one hundred years ago the largest passenger ship of her time struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank, along with about 1,500 hapless souls, including many who knowingly gave up the chance to survive by allowing others to board lifeboats. The recounting of this amazingly altruistic action has prompted me and many other folks to ponder how we would behave under similar circumstances.

If you are employed by state or local government agencies, or a company that does business with any of these entities, here’s a somewhat analogous test of your selflessness and courage that would jeopardize your job, if not your life.

This week, as reported by John Celock in today’s HuffingtonPost, a campaign to recall our newly reelected Governor Bobby Jindal was announced by Angie Bonvillain and Brenda Romero, two courageous teachers in Calcasieu Parish. This effort is clearly as doomed as was the Titanic, because a recall election would require about 900,000 signatures…a third of all registered voters in Louisiana. That’s considerably more than the 673,239 voters who, for reasons beyond my ken, returned Jindal to office last October.

I’m anything but virginal about the politics of the Louisiana governor’s office, having worked in there for 18 years during six administrations. Based on that experience and talking with many knowledgeable colleagues over the years I would rank Bobby Jindal as the most dictatorial, ruthless and vindictive governor of our state since Huey P. Long.

Thus anyone dependent on monies flowing through the state treasury would commit financial hari kari by signing this petition. The only conceivable motive for doing so would be to protest the Jindal agenda* of privatizing almost every significant public function of state government, including education, health care, public safety, environmental protection…and my personal passion, coastal restoration. Remember the governor signing over a $260 million check from BP to the private dredging industry to build temporary sand berms after the Macondo well blowout?

On April 12 I proudly added my name to the current list of Jindal recall signatories. This action required absolutely no courage on my part, however, in that I’m now retired from 30 years’ service to the state. Were I still employed I frankly don’t know whether I’d have the cajones to go down with the Coastal Titanic or sheepishly fight my way into a lifeboat.

*Supported by the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

APRIL THIRTEENTH

Oysters dying from coastal ‘Coke’

It’s been famously reported that if the Tooth Fairy places a baby tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola it will dissolve overnight. Tooth enamel is in fact susceptible to dissolution and erosion by the acids in soda pop, which include phosphoric and citric acids and acid produced by the bacterial metabolism of sugar…as well as carbonic acid from the carbonation process.

Warming and rising seas dominate the discussion on the coastal impacts of climate change but the world ocean is also gradually becoming more acidic as it absorbs rising atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by fossil fuel consumption, deforestation and cement production. In a December 18 2009 article in HuffingtonPost, John Heilprin called ocean acidification the “Evil twin of climate change.”

On September 13, 2011 a brief note by Louis Bergeron was posted in physorg.com about ongoing research on ocean acidification. Stanford scientists found a shallow volcanic vent in Italian waters of the Mediterranean Sea that continuously belches carbon dioxide. This results in a steady state gradient of ‘carbonation’ that provides a natural laboratory for measuring effects on the benthic community of the lowering of seawater pH. Benthic mollusks with shells made of Calcium carbonate…oysters, mussels, clams and snails…are particularly susceptible.

Now a smoking gun has been found. Leslie Kaufmann reported today in the New York Times that Pacific oyster hatcheries have been suffering mortalities among oyster spat as a result of ocean acidification.

Here’s the link to a primer on ocean acidification by Jean-Pierre Gattuso, which was updated in July 2011. I may post a feature on acidification and Louisiana oysters in the future.

APRIL TWELTH

This graphic was modified from a corps map showing the MRHDMS

Another river study?

This evening the Corps of Engineers and the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) will host the second in a series of six public meetings to inform anyone who’s interested about the details and scope of a pair of studies of the lower Mississippi River and its delta called collectively the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study (MRHDMS).

These interrelated studies are finally commencing, after having been authorized in 2007. After reviewing the power point slides around which the presentations are organized I decided not to attend any of the meetings, not because of disinterest but because of cynicism, impatience and limited time.

Now that the corps has finally decided to look seriously at river ‘replumbing’ the effort seems to have been overtaken by competing and overlapping efforts, with little explicit corps involvement.

When I was Governor Foster’s coastal advisor and had some influence with the corps, at both division and district levels I begged for a comprehensive study of the feasibility of reconnecting the lower river to its delta. In my mind, this study would have encompassed the entire distributary basin of the river, from the Old River Control Structure to the Gulf, including both the Atchafalaya and lower Mississippi. It would have involved river hydraulics, sediment dynamics, navigation needs, delta nourishment requirements, fisheries and water quality, e.g., nutrient concentrations.

My harangues about the fundamental need for such a study…if we were really serious about coastal restoration…culminated in essentially a limited one man study of the river below New Orleans called the Mississippi River Sediment, Nutrient and Freshwater Redistribution study, or MRSNFR, that was funde d by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA). MRSNFR was headed by a sincere and well meaning young engineer who was totally unprepared to tackle such an ambitious and critical effort.

At that time, perhaps the best prepared staffer at the district to head MRSNFR was Harley Winer, Ph.D., but he was probably busy doing other stuff in his cubicle, a sign of just how seriously the corps treated the need to replumb the river. I’m sure that copies of the MRSNFR report are still on shelves somewhere at district headquarters on Leake Avenue…covered in cobwebs…but it’s no longer referenced in planning documents.

The 2012 Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast calls for the release of up to 616,000 cfs, or ~62% % of the total flow of water and sediment from the lower Mississippi during flood stage. If memory serves, MRSNFR called for releasing from 10-20% of the flow.

The Master Plan calls for spending $73 million for another study of the lower river from New Orleans to the gulf: Mississippi River Channel Realignment: Planning, engineering and design to explore potential locations and discharge regimes for a channel realignment. I caouldn’t resist including the acronym for this effort (MRCRPEDEPLDRCR).

If I were at the LCA meeting this evening I would ask both corps and state reps how MRHDMS compares with and relates to MRSNFR and MRCRPEDEPLDRCRand what about the report just released by the Mississippi River Delta Science and Engineering Special Team, with answers 10 fundamental questions about the Mississippi River Delta?

See why I’m not going to waste my time and gasoline driving to New Orleans this evening?

APRIL ELEVENTH

SEST delta report released; so who’s on first?

John Day who heads SEST and Chip Groat who heads TWIG are shown here masquerading as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in their famous baseball routine: Who's on first?

Yesterday Amy Wold and Mark Schleifstein wrote articles published in The Advocate and nola.com, respectively, describing a hot-off-the-press technical evaluation of the capability of the lower Mississippi River to restore America’s Delta. The new report is titled: Answering 10 Fundamental Questions on the Mississippi River Delta. Both articles include extensive quotes from John Day, Ph.D., who oversaw the development of the document by an impressive list of 22 technical contributors known collectively as the Science and Engineering and Science Team (SEST) funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, The National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society.

At this point I’ve only skimmed the report, which is relevant to and complementary with a feature post that I’m preparing on recent coastal science breakthroughs. Both Wold and Schleifstein note that the SEST document provides additional support for the Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan  for a Sustainable Coast.

As I reported in this recent post on Great Expectations, I’m very pleasted to see an expanding number of independent scientists coming to the restoration ‘table,’ but I remain curious and somewhat skeptical about whether and how input from SEST and the various other scientific groups including The Water Institute of the Gulf (TWIG) will be coordinated and used effectively by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).

APRIL TENTH

Of Like Minds, oil on canvas by Philip Castania

Like minds on coastal science

In today’s The Advocate Amy Wold described a hot-off-the-press scientific report on the capability of the lower Mississippi River to restore America’s Delta. Her article was largely based on an interview with John Day, Ph.D., who managed the development of the report.

This article is coincidental with and complementary to a feature post that I’ve been preparing on recent coastal science breakthroughs, including a river sediment budget and a paper on sea level rise along the gulf coast.

Stay tuned!

APRIL NINTH


St. Bernard Parish and coastal planning

Hurricane Katrina provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to consider whether and how best to redevelop depopulated tracts of landscape in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. The storm also provided a shot in the arm to what had become a lackluster coastal restoration program and the chance to expand it into a truly comprehensive coastal protection and restoration effort. Unfortunately, both opportunities seem to have largely been squandered.

Benjamin Alexander-Bloch reported in today’s The Times-Picayune that St. Bernard Parish is inheriting about 2,000 residential lots vacant since the devastation of Katrina in 2005. The property and the responsibility to manage it will be transferred to the parish from the state’s Road Home Program. This has triggered the development of a three-year program to attract new owners to develop and maintain the property.

Nothing in the article suggests that the discussion on the disposition of this property acknowledges the final Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast or the need to consider the consequences of redevelopment on future flood risk.

Soon after Katrina did her thing, outside experts on urban planning, who admittedly by and large had little personal risk, recognized that much of the devastated and depopulated low elevation former wetland could be converted to green space that would reduce future flood risk and provide natural flood protection going forward. They strongly recommended higher density redevelopment, leaving large expanses of green open space to reduce maintenance cost, improve quality of life for current and future residents, while providing natural storm surge protection and flood water storage.

This recommendation was perfectly complementary to the goals of coastal protection and restoration and should have become incorporated into the coastal Master Plan. Unfortunately the advice on the redevelopment of high-risk property was summarily rebuffed and rejected by elected officials who feared backlash from irate residents. Nothing I’ve heard suggests that this provincial attitude has changed since the finalization of the Master Plan.

APRIL EIGHTH

EPA and DEQ at odds again, this time over Nucor.

Nucor sits strategically between the river and the Maurepas swamp that desperately needs river water.

On September 22, 2010 I posted a feature article on the plans by the Nucor Corporation of Charlotte, NC to construct a major iron processing facility on the Mississippi River near Convent.

Nucor is now back in the news. On April 6 Mark Schleifstein reported in nola.com and yesterday Amy Wold reported in The Advocate that EPA disagrees with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) over a decision on air quality permits for the $4 billion Nucor Iron processing plant that is currently under construction near Convent, Louisiana. DEQ wants to subdivide an overall air pollution ‘cap’ for Nucor into two separate permits, one for the first phase of the plant and one for the second.

This would ultimately allow the emission of higher levels of particulates and gaseous pollutants, which pose respiratory risks for neighboring riverside residents.

This disagreement between EPA and DEQ is just the latest example of a long tradition in which EPA calls for more stringent air and water pollution limits than do our state officials…who are paid to protect the health of the inhalers and imbibers and the fish and fowl. One wonders who works for whom.

The coastal significance of this disagreement on air pollution limits is threefold: (1) The air emissions under dispute don’t address the fact that Nucor will emit a huge plume of carbon dioxide, further increasing the industrial carbon footprint of our state and contributing to climate change that threatens us all. (2) National and state political interests strongly oppose EPA’s call for caps on industrial carbon dioxide emissions. (3) One would think that in return for the health and environmental costs of pollution our state would request a tiny dispensationfrom Nucor  in the form of a property easement to allow the conveyance of river water into the Maurepas swamp system, as proposed in my original post about the plant.

Reliable sources tell me that Nucor would gladly entertain allowing river water to be conveyed across its property to benefit the coast but the state has so far shown no interest. What about that, Governor Jindal, Steve Moret and Garret Graves?

APRIL SEVENTH

Parana river mouth. 1a image from Google Earth, note no sediment plume. 1b image from The Times-Picayune.

Comparing river mouths: Parana v Mississippi

In yesterday’s The Times-Picayune Mark Schleifstein reported on the function of the Parana River, the second longest river in South America after the Amazon. I was impressed by several things:

1) that an environmental reporter in New Orleans would write about so esoteric a subject as estuarine function in a far distant river mouth, using terms like ‘turbidity maximum,’ in which the plume of suspended clay particles shown in the satellite image flocculate as they encounter saline conditions;

2) that the obvious heavy discharge of suspended clay has not resulted in a characteristic prodelta complex…which implies that the erosion of topsoil from agricultural zones is a relatively new phenomenon; and

3) that Google Earth imagery comparing the Parana and Mississippi River mouths shows no sediment plume in the former, which contrasts with the Mississippi imagery.

Mississippi River delta. 2a from Google Earth. 2b from LSU's Earth Scan Laboratory.

For an excellent description of the generic deltaic process see this paper by Paul Hudson, at the University of Texas at Austin, which includes the following quote:

The Mississippi delta is the most studied deltaic system in the world, although the geometry of this fluvial domi- nated delta is quite distinct from most other large deltas. 

Note that both river systems are shown at approximately the same scale; with satellite imagery of both systems seen from approximately 230 Km (138 miles) elevation.

APRIL SIXTH

Did Earthly wobble trigger the global Pleistocene ‘meltdown’ 20K years ago? 

Deglaciation in progress (photo from NPR)

No matter what the Koch Brothers say, the scientific establishment no longer debates the fact that the past century of global warming has primarily been the consequence of the steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel.

On the other hand, the initial cause of the onset of an 8,000 year period of global warming that commenced about 20,000 years ago and signaled the end of the Pleistocene epoch, is apparently not settled science.

Christopher Joyce reported yesterday on NPR’s Morning Edition that a sudden wobble of the Earth’s axis during that time may have been the trigger. He based his story on a new publication by Harvard climate change scientist Jeremy Shakun and eight co-authors in a new publication in the prestigious international journal Nature.

In order to learn more I decided to go to the horse’s mouth so to speak and pulled up the abstract and five figures available here. To my astonishment, the Earthly wobble is not mentioned by the authors, at least not using that term. Here are key quotes from Joyce’s piece, as heard on NPR:

The last big ice age ended about 11,000 years ago, and not a moment too soon — it made a lot more of the world livable, at least for humans. (Editor’s note: I don’t agree with the phrase “not a moment too soon,” in that the ice age and low sea level allowed Asians to walk across the Bering Straits into the New World as long as about 15,000 years ago. Those first native Americans inherited an amazing pair of continents…totally devoid of human-specific pathogens!)

But exactly what caused the big thaw isn’t clear, and new research suggests that a wobble in the Earth kicked off a complicated process that changed the whole planet.

…Here’s his (Shakun’s) scenario for what killed the ice age, which was published in the journal Nature this week.

About 20,000 years ago, the Earth — the whole planet — wobbled on its axis. That happens periodically. But this time, a lot more summer sunlight hit the northern hemisphere. Gigantic ice sheets in the Arctic and Greenland melted.

“That water is going to go into the North Atlantic, and that happens to be the critical spot for this global conveyer belt of ocean circulation,” Shakun says.

The conveyer belt is how scientists describe the huge, underwater loop-the-loop that water does in the Atlantic: Cold Arctic water sinks and moves south while warm water in the southern Atlantic moves north.

The trouble is that the sudden burst of fresh meltwater didn’t sink, so the conveyer belt stopped.

“It’s like, you know, sticking a fork in the conveyer belt at the grocery store,” Shakun says. “The thing just jams up; it can’t keep sinking, and the whole thing jams up.”

So warm water in the south Atlantic stayed put. That made the Antarctic warmer. Eventually, ocean currents and wind patterns changed, and carbon dioxide rose up out of the southern oceans and into the atmosphere.

Eric Wolff, a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, isn’t convinced a wobble was the trigger — the planet had wobbled before and not melted the ice. But he says whatever did start the process during the ice age, the subsequent increase in CO2 created a runaway greenhouse effect worldwide.

“The CO2 increase turned what initially was a Southern Hemisphere warming into a global warming. That’s a very nice sequence of events to explain what happened between about 19,000 and 11,000 years ago,” Wolff says.

But that’s a process that has taken about 8,000 years. And Shakun’s research found that the amount of CO2 it took to end the ice age is about the same amount as humans have added to the atmosphere in the past century.

The last paragraph is the take home, bottom line message, regardless of whether an Earth wobble triggered the onset of the Holocene epoch…which has now been superseded by the very young and very scary Anthropocene.

APRIL FIFTH

Dutch and American deltas and plans to sustain them

Contrasting coastal meetings: (1) David Vitter feels your delta pain; and (2) Dutch grad students compare and contrast American and Dutch deltas

My little car and I braved heavy rains yesterday to ‘kill’ two coastal meetings with a single drive to New Orleans. First I attended a political discussion of goals and progress on hurricane protection for SE Louisiana, hosted by Senator David Vitter at the Alumni Center at the lakeshore campus of the University of New Orleans.

This was a forgettable meeting, during which our pugnacious junior solon deftly chided the Corps of Engineers for intransigence, while taking credit for that agency’s significant post-Katrina flood protection accomplishments. During his familiar and tiresome anti-fed refrain, Vitter’s solo tenor was joined in chorus by the baritone voice of Garret Graves, his former staffer and now Governor Jindal’s coastal go-to guy.

Mark Schleifstein captured the flavor and substance of the meeting in an article published today in The Times-Picayune. Not mentioned in the article was the fact that both Vitter and Graves singled out the wildly popular but gravely flawed Morganza-to-the-Gulf project, which the state has been promoting for twenty years, despite reservations by the Corps based on unimpressive benefit/cost assessments of the project.

Then I met for a considerably more interesting, open and frank working lunch with three smart and iinquisitive grad students from Holland who had attended Vitter’s meeting at my suggestion. This lunch meeting also included my coastal colleague Harley Winer, Ph.D., who graciously taxied the students and contributed hydraulic insights to the conversation.

This triumvirate of budding delta researchers (Marie-Louise Kroon, Mark Saris and Erwin van de Griend) will be in New Orleans for the next seven weeks, compiling a joint masters thesis comparing the parallel efforts to sustain the Mississippi and Rhine deltas. The following text is from an email that I received describing their goals and requesting my help in breaking into the maze of issues and people that characterize and complicate the efforts to restore what I call America’s Delta.

Dear Dr. Leonard Bahr:

We are a project group of three master students from the St. Radboud University in the Netherlands. Currently we are working on our master thesis “Paving the way for sustainable delta management” which comprises the following:”What are the opportunities and constraints regarding the implementation of sustainable innovative initiatives in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta (NL) and the Mississippi delta (USA).

The data will largely be acquired by semi-structured interviewing of specific field-experts, representatives of the local initiatives, and important stakeholders.”

Some general information: Our project is supervised by prof. dr. A.J.M. Smits (Chair at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society). We will be staying in New Orleans from 3-26-’12 till 5-22-’12.

We have an online

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