September 2012 Coastal Scuttlebutt (cont.)
The end of the month signals the end of an era
Sadly, The Times-Picayune published the final editions of two of its top newspaper columns today, one a running commentary on the politics of south Louisiana and one a long-term advisory on the ecological morbidity of the same region. The former has for 18 years been the creation of Stephanie Grace and the latter the forty year effort of Bob Marshall.
Grace and Marshall have effectively carried the water for the fourth estate, using the power of the written word to expose programmatic ignorance, incompetence, ineffectiveness, impotence, intransigence and incapability to solve fundamental problems that put the public at risk.
Grace used her space to thank both her fans and her critics for an unexpectedly abbreviated 18-year tenure as political commentator and critic extraordinaire. Apparently she wouldn’t have traded the gig for anything. She’s not a coastal authority like Marshall, but then neither are the officials she has exposed for bad policy decisions, especially fiscal ones, most of which have coastal implications.
My friend Bob Marshall has been documenting and explaining the basis for our deltaic demise without pulling punches or mincing words. He ended his last column as follows:
This is my last day as Outdoors Editor of The Times-Picayune. It has been a great joy and privilege to serve the readers of the metro area and work alongside some of the finest journalists in the nation.
The digital pens of these two excellent writers and fearless critics suddenly ran out of ink when the T-P owners decided to streamline their media operation by cutting out four days of hard copies each and every week…in a market particularly addicted to holding a real paper in its collective hands.
As noted here in today’s The Advocate, this vacuum will be filled.
Today’s nola.com carried an AP report that Hurricane Isaac damaged 59,000 homes in Louisiana.
A staff report in The Advocate provided even more detail, using the number 58,952. I’ve not seen estimates of the volume of woody debris generated by Isaac but I’m sure it was massive and presumably proportional to the number of homes damaged. Much of this waste was produced in coastal areas proximal to landscape quickly turning into waterscape, areas that could benefit from the beneficial infilling with downed trees and similar clean organic material.
On September 13, 2011 I posted a plea for state officials to plan in advance for the beneficial disposal in our sinking coast of solid waste residue generated during the passage of each and every hurricane. This seems like such an obvious no-brainer as not to require a follow-up…but then that’s been my experience with most of my coastal proposals.
Here’s a quote from last year’s post on storm generated waste:
…right after Katrina I had been particularly interested in the feasibility of placing the huge volume of uncontaminated organic waste…mostly downed trees…onto selected coastal areas. Much of this resource could in theory have been used to infill former emergent wetland that has recently degraded to submergent (open water) habitat.
Using selected Katrina waste to benefit the coast, rather than paying to discard it needlessly should have been seriously considered by coastal officials. The general subject was briefly considered but ultimately ruled out by bureaucrats at the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources…who were presumably more concerned about potential lawsuits than about coastal degradation.
I helplessly watched thousands of tons of woody primary production in the form of ‘Katrina trees’ being incinerated to CO2, soot and ash and blown into a polluted atmosphere on the North Shore, about four miles west of Madisonville. This wasteful act transpired on Guste island Road, only a mile or two north of a dying coastal forest on the rim of Lake Pontchartrain.
A cursory review of the Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast didn’t turn up any mention of the beneficial use of hurricane debris to infill sunken wetlands as a specific part of the plan. Unless state officials are specifically required to consider this concept they’ll blithely send it all to landfills.
I hereby propose the addition of such a section…for whatever good that is.
Coastal wetlands as a carbon sink
Coastal wetlands absorb and sequester some of the excess atmospheric carbon dioxide that is being spewed by human cultural activities, trapping heat and causing sea level to rise. The rate at which this sequestration takes place has become a subject of intense interest by wetland ecologists around the world, some of whom feel that restored wetlands could be even more valuable than previously recognized. It’s possible that industrial carbon emitters could fund coastal restoration as a means of offsetting the harm that they do.
Researchers in this field include local scientists Drs. Sarah Mack, John Day and Rob Lane, whose work on the significance of coastal wetlands as a carbon sink will hopefully be described here in a guest post by Dr. Mack. Another team of researchers from the University of Virginia led by Mathew Kirwan just published a paper in the distinguished journal Nature on carbon uptake by salt marshes, in the face of sea level rise.
This paper was summarized in a post by Alister Doyle in Huffpost Green, which was kindly forwarded by Jim Rives, a coastal colleague and advocate who formerly managed the Coastal Management Program at the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Jim is a frequent contributor of important coastal news, now retired and hopefully free of political repercussions resulting from the disclosure of his name.
Another coastal authority who frequently notifies me of breaking coastal news sent a reference to an important relevant scientific publication on Blue Carbon. This term represents a huge global pool of carbon, previously sequestered by coastal wetlands, which is now being released as wetlands are inundated by sea level rise or destroyed by development. Because this informant is still gainfully employed I’m posting his comments anonymously as follow:
Regarding your point of the inconsistency in those who want to sell carbon credits in restoring wetlands while resisting efforts to reduce emissions, or even denying the need to, consider this paper.
If they (the authors) are right the CO2 emissions resulting from wetland degradation are substantial. Would reducing those losses be credited as emissions reduction? More likely, one could only sell credits for new wetlands being created, but the carbon captured would be small relative to that being lost. And, in light of continued losses due to SLR, how could one ever assure that the carbon sequestered would remain so for many decades?
Mysterious new coastal industrial project
David J. Mitchell reported in today’s The Advocate that a very large industrial development project (Project Frontier) is under serious but confidential discussion by officials in Ascension and St. James Parish and the Department of Economic Development.
International petrochemical companies such as Royal Dutch Shell have apparently been looking at riverside sites on both east and west banks of the river in the vicinity of the $3.4 billion Nucor iron processing facility* that is currently under construction on the west bank at Convent.
Rumors are rife that this project could cost $10 billion, compared to the $3.4 billion Nucor project, so it is generating great interest from political and economic development interests. My (rhetorical) question is, what interests are represented at the table in discussing the ecological risks and opportunities presented by a massive construction effort in a critical part of the coastal zone? This is a rhetorical question.
Any project of this scale constructed in the coastal zone should include a good faith partnership with the state/federal coastal program, especially the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).
Project Frontier will require obtaining and relocating massive volumes of delta clay, as well as altering local hydrology by the construction of levees. Such changes carry heavy implications for either reducing or transmitting storm surge, as well as for the poor health of the coastal forests that surround the site.
*Regular readers will remember that I have frequently pointed out that the Nucor site would be ideal in terms of providing an access source for conveying a dependable flow of river water into the dying Maurepas coastal forest. The most recent such post was on April 8.
State officials call for less study, more action
Paul Purpera reported in nola.com about a field hearing on Hurricane Isaac that was called by Senator Mary Landrieu yesterday in Jefferson Parish, with Major General John Peabody, commander of the Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Valley Division and state officials.
The meeting sounds like just one more in an endless series of pro-forma calls by the state for the congress to expand the corps’ budget for coastal protection and restoration, with corps officials solemnly nodding approval. The corps is not allowed to lobby overtly for budget enhancements but they love to hear other folks do it.
Feasibility and design studies are cheaper than moving dirt and the corps typically has sufficient funding for evaluating projects, if not actually constructing them. The standard complaint from state officials is a generic call for less study and more action (i.e., construction), which of course means a larger construction budget.
For example, Senator Landrieu complained that the total nationwide FY 2013 corps construction budget is a paltry $1.6 billion. This is insufficient even to implement the scaled back list of Louisiana projects authorized under the $1.7 billion 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
Governor Jindal’s senior staff has notably included folks who lack college degrees, including his former chief of staff Timmy Teepall, who was home schooled, and his coastal advisor Garret Graves, who reportedly dropped out of Louisiana Tech University in Ruston without completing his undergraduate degree. The article includes an amusing quote about Graves, who has a long reputation of dismissing academic coastal science when it conflicts with politics…and trashing what he sees as endless studies. Here’s the quote:
Taking a swipe at Corps of Engineers studies, Garrett (sic) Graves, who chairs the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, likened the corps to a perpetual student that needs to get out of college and to “get a job.”
I guess that kind of thinking is what motivated Mr. Graves.
Want to sue the corps for property damage related to flooding? Play the lottery.
Anyone who’s suffered serious damages related to flood incidents in south Louisiana may be ill advised to consider suing the corps of engineers, the federal agency charged with primary responsibility for reducing flood risks.
Mark Schleifstein reported in nola.com today that once again a federal court has ruled against the plaintiffs suing the corps for their homes destroyed by flooding caused by a levee that failed during Hurricane Katrina.
As noted by Schleifstein, a provision of the Flood Control Act of 1928 (FCA) gives the corps immunity from flooding caused by the failure of flood protection projects…even when the flooding is the result of negligent and wrongful acts of federal employees. The laws seem to have been written by friends of the corps, all intent on eliminating any chance for a plaintiff and for whom compensation for flood victims is an oxymoron.
NPR also carried an AP report on this decision today. Here’s a quote:
The panel’s new opinion says the corps is completely insulated from liability by a provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act called the “discretionary-function exception.”
In 2009, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. rejected the federal government’s argument that it is entitled to immunity from lawsuits blaming Katrina’s flood damage on the corps’ operation and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet navigation channel.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the corps’ delay in armoring the channel was the result of erroneous scientific judgments, not public-policy considerations that would make it immune to the homeowners’ claims.
But the 5th Circuit panel disagreed, saying there was ample evidence that decisions leading to the corps’ delay in armoring the channel had a “public policy character.”
I have no idea what this last sentence means.
Gulf coast contradictions
The poorest region in the country is the Deep South along the gulf coast, according to a new study published by 247WallSt.com. Mississippi is the poorest state but Louisiana has no right to brag, as shown by this quote from the study:
When Hurricane Katrina struck the region in 2005, the southern part of the state was decimated, particularly the city of New Orleans. Six years later, the city was still recovering with almost 17% of families earning less than $10,000 per year, more than triple the national rate of 5.1%. By many measures, conditions are actually getting worse in the state. As of 2011, for the first time since Katrina, more than one in five residents lived below the poverty line, only slightly better than Mississippi…Louisiana’s median income fell by more than the country as a whole, falling more than $2,000 between 2010 and 2011.
This is particularly ironic, in that this impoverished region overlays the richest renewable and non-renewable resource base in the nation, resources that the country can ill afford to risk. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a succession of lesser storms and the BP blowout in 2010, the increasing difficulty of protecting these resources has become obvious.
Now there are increasing signs of cooperation among the gulf coast states, driven by the goal of attracting federal support for coastal protection and restoration beyond Louisiana’s borders. For example, yesterday The Times-Picayune published an editorial praising an incipient political alliance forming among gulf coast states with respect to attracting federal support for restoring and protecting the resource base. Every threat that is described, including hurricane damage, shoreline retreat, and changes in the Mississippi River watershed leading to gulf hypoxia, is exacerbated by climate change.
Nevertheless, the editorial never uses the phrase ‘climate change’ and the only reference to this process is this line:
Another goal is to develop a carbon market to spur the creation of new wetlands and a reduction in harmful emissions.
Meanwhile, Seth Borenstein with the Associated Press reported in Huffpost green that climate change, the single most important environmental issue, and the elephant in the gulf coast ‘room,’ is being totally ignored by both the Dems and the Repubs.I sure hope that Jim Lehrer asks both candidates about global warming during the first debate on October 3rd.
Like minds on Entergy, climate change and courage
Stephanie Grace wrote an essay published today in The Times-Picayune extolling the public-spirited and selfless courage of Mr. J. Wayne Leonard, retiring CEO of the Entergy Corporation. I don’t know whether or not she got the idea for her essay from my recent mini-posts on September 6 and September 19 (scroll down) but if so I’m very happy to have been able to suggest a topic to someone from whom I borrow ideas on a regular basis!
Both Ms. Grace and I recognize the courage it took for a prominent Republican businessperson during the past partisan political decade to outspokenly advocate government regulations to cap industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. This contrarian position is tantamount to the head of Budweiser advocating higher beer taxes to discourage binge drinking by college students.
Leonard’s position specifically targets future generations of coastal residents of Louisiana, where the cost…and risk of living is rising proportional to the rise of sea level caused by climate change.
Bob Marshall points the coastal finger of blame
Yesterday, The Times-Picayune published another tell-it-like-it-is essay by caustic coastal commentator Bob Marshall. This one lists the criteria by which anyone of voting age living south of I-10/I-12 in the Bayou State could be deemed at least partially culpable for the undiminished decline of Louisiana’s coastal landscape.
This net sweeps up a whole lot of folks who may smugly consider themselves beyond reproach as advocates of coastal restoration. All it takes is a modicum of smugness, a whiff of hypocrisy and a pinch of self-delusion. Try to be totally objective as you read the essay.
Gulf fisheries rebounding, but not in Barataria-Terrebonne region
Yesterday Benjamin Alexander Bloch with The Times-Picayune reported that a report released on September 19 by the National Marine Fisheries Service
(NMFS) shows a surprising increase in the menhaden harvest rate in the northern Gulf of Mexico equivalent to rates last seen in 1994. This seems highly anomalous, given progressive loss of nursery ground area for 17 years, hypoxia that has been growing worse during most of those years…and the Macondo Deepwater Horizon well blowout.
Meanwhile, Nikki Buskey reported in The Daily Comet that Louisiana fishers in the vicinity of the Macondo well blowout are reporting dismal catches, while gulf fisheries in general are at record levels.
Here are some key quotes: Gulf fishing rebounded in 2011 to the highest volume in more than a decade, according to a report the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released Wednesday.
But local fishermen said catches in heavily oiled areas such as the Barataria-Terrebonne basin haven’t rebounded since the 2010 BP oil spill, and Gulf-wide fisheries statistics don’t show the continued poor catches they’ve seen since 2010.
“Unless you look at basin-specific data, especially in the areas impacted heavily by oil, you’re not seeing the whole picture,” said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “We still have areas in the Barataria Basin that haven’t reopened to fishing since the spill. These figures seem to paint a rosy picture that everything is fine. And it’s not.”
According to the federal report, total U.S. seafood landings reached a 17-year high in 2011 thanks to the rebuilding of fish populations and an increase in the value of landings.
Arctic ice cover down almost 50%. Is that important to our coast?
Joanna Zelman and James Gerkin reported in HuffPost that leading climate scientists met yesterday at a Greenpeace meeting in New York to discuss the fact that Arctic ice cover just reached an all time record low. Here are some quotes:
The National Snow and Ice Data Center NSIDC released preliminary findings Wednesday suggesting that on Sept. 16, Arctic ice covered just 1.32 million square miles — the lowest extent ever recorded. This minimum is 49 percent below the 1979 average, when satellite records began.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org said: “Because of [the fossil fuel industry's] wealth and political power, they’ve been able to remain the only industry on Earth that doesn’t have to clean up after themselves. There’s no price on carbon,” McKibben later told HuffPost.
His proposal to increase the cost of carbon emissions — one also advocated by Hansen — would involve collecting a fee on all oil, gas and coal resources at the point of domestic extraction or their port of entry. A dividend would then be equally split among all legal residents, with none of the funds going to the government. McKibben and others argue that this market-based approach would promote innovation and awareness without increasing the size of government.
According to McKibben, the carbon fee must be high enough to keep 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
This strategy is one form of a carbon marketing system, which relates to the new campaign to create a carbon sequestration program in south Louisiana. In theory, the carbon sucked up each year by restored or newly created delta wetlands is a fungible commodity that could to help pay for delta restoration (scroll down to September 18).
Caption: From left: Caroline Cannon, Inupiat leader and 2012 Goldman prize winner; K Subramanya, chief executive officer at Tata BP Solar India Ltd; Bryan Walsh, senior energy and environment writer for Time; Surendra Shrestha, regional director for Asia and the Pacific region of the UNEP; Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, and Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International.
Hurricane Isaac electric bill
Richard Thompson reported in today’s The Times-Picayune and Ted Griggs reported in The Advocate that the repair bill to restore power to almost 800,000 Entergy customers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas after Isaac could be half a billion dollars. Isaac ranked fourth in terms of the most outages from hurricanes, beginning with Katrina in 2005.
A few years ago Entergy commissioned a major study to predict the rising costs of supplying electricity to their northern gulf customers in the face of accelerating sea level rise. Here’s a quote from the executive summary:
The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to growing environmental risks today with >$350 billion of cumulative expected losses by 2030. The objective of this work is to develop a consistent fact base that quantifies climate risks in the U.S. Gulf Coast and helps inform economically sensible approaches for addressing this risk. It represents the first comprehensive analysis of climate risks and adaptation economics along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The scope of this analysis includes Coastal counties and parishes considering a strip of land up to 70 miles inland across the shoreline, ranging from southern Texas, to Coastal Mississippi and Alabama. Since this work is primarily focused on areas of the Gulf Coast where the energy is key to the economy (the Energy Gulf Coast), Florida is excluded from the analysis. The area of study includes 800 zip codes across 77 counties and parishes, and covers a population of ~12 million people, and an annual GDP of ~$630 MM.
The fact that Entergy commissioned this study, the company’s co-sponsorship of the America’s Wetland Foundation and strong statements by company officials on the growing risk of climate change all imply support for a serious investment in coastal protection and restoration. The cost of Isaac is noise level, relative to the risk of future storms.
America’s Wetland Foundation director radio interview on coastal energy issues
Yesterday (September 17) Jim Engster interviewed Valsin Marmilion, manager/director of the America’s Wetland Foundation (AWF), which has just issued a new report on coastal Louisiana, “Beyond unintended consequences.”
The AWF was largely the brainchild of veteran political consultant and PR guru Marmilion in 2003, who mounted a national campaign to publicize the plight of south Louisiana and the need to take action in the form of federal funding for coastal restoration. The AWF was a spinoff of the governor’s coastal advisory commission, which was created during the second term of the Foster administration and still functions.
As Governor Foster’s coastal guru during that time I’m proud to have helped shape the creation and role of this coastal commission, which has always been chaired by noted New Orleans businessman (banker) and environmental advocate Mr. R. King Milling. King was named the executive director of the AWF and he has worn both hats with pride and distinction for almost a decade.
Although I recognize and applaud the role of the AWF in publicizing the plight of the Mississippi River delta, its primary financial sponsor is the oil and gas industry, which bears a major role in the destruction of the coast and which has never funded coastal protection and restoration. This sponsorship provides major PR perks at a very modest cost for petrochemical giants, including Shell and ExxonMobil.
I’m not privy to the finances of the AWF or how much their major sponsors contribute but a current sponsor is the Entergy Corporation, which has, to its great credit, adopted an enlightened view of anthropogenic climate change and global warming. Entergy’s sponsorship gives the AWF considerable latitude to describe accelerating sea level rise as a primary threat to our coast, which our elected officials still deny.
The above comments are by way of background for the interesting conversation among Jim Engster, Marmilion and some of Engster’s listeners. I don’t always agree with Val but I credit him for his candid responses during the interview to questions related to the role of fossil fuels in global warming.
Speaking of climate change, att time 14:35 in the podcast Marmilion broaches what he calls the Beneficial use of carbon program. Emergent coastal wetlands are known to be sinks for carbon dioxide. In other words, they sequester this greenhouse gas and theoretically provide a market for selling credits to the energy industry, that could help fund the creation of new marshes. Marmilion mentioned three separate studies (pilot projects) underway to quantify this process and perhaps create a new coastal funding mechanism.
One of these studies is being carried out by my friend and colleague Sarah Mack, about whose work I hope to post in the near future. Here’s the first (teaser) paragraph of a press release that will be distributed today at 4:00 PM CDT:
ARLINGTON, Va. and NEW ORLEANS, La. (Sept. 18, 2012) – A revolutionary new tool is now available to help restore the Gulf of Mexico’s disappearing coastal wetlands — Louisiana’s first line of defense against damaging hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Isaac. Funded by Entergy Corporation, developed by New Orleans-based Tierra Resources and approved for use by the American Carbon Registry (ACR) following stakeholder consultation and scientific peer review, the new tool creates a self-sustaining revenue source for wetlands restoration through the sale of carbon offsets.
Bob Bea testifies against the Corps on Industrial Canal wall failure during Katrina
On September 10 Mark Schleifstein reported in the Times-Picayune that a civil lawsuit near and dear to a group of Katrina flood victims in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was about to commence on September 12 in U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr’s federal courtroom in New Orleans. The implications of this trial go far beyond the plaintiffs’ interests, however and go right to the heart of the corps’ ultimate culpability for the overall disaster.
The trial has in fact begun and today Katherine Sayre provided an update in The Times-Picayune. The judge heard key testimony from well-known Engineering Professor Robert Bea from the University of California Berkeley. Bob Bea has become something of a folk hero in New Orleans for his forensic studies of the levee failures in New Orleans that resulted in Katrina’s deadly legacy. This knowledgeable research scientist/engineer is also an authority on deepwater drilling technology who just happens to an expert on the causes of the Macondo Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Bea testified that construction related to the expansion of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal complex weakened the soils around the canal wall, causing its failure from seepage around the base of the canal, rather than from overtopping. If the judge rules that the failure had been caused by overtopping, as the defendants argue, the case will be thrown out, because Judge Duval has previously ruled that the corps cannot be held liable for the failure of flood control projects.
Back to the future…coastal marshes dying
Amy Wold reported in today’s The Advocate that an ongoing aerial survey by the US Geological Survey National Wetlands Research Center (NWRC) in Lafayette shows…surprise, surprise…coastal marsh damage and loss resulting from Hurricane Isaac…as well as from ongoing stressors, such as the so-called brown marsh syndrome. She based the article largely on an interview with Phil Turnipseed, director of NWRC.
The article includes no quantitative information and could have been written fifteen years ago after the passage of a previous hurricane. Since the mid 1990s the USGS and other federal and state agencies have invested heavily in trying to establish a monitoring program by which to quantify the overall and local rates of change of the coastal ecosystem.
This effort, known as the Coastal Reference Monitoring System (CRMS) involved establishing an array of many hundreds of permanent monitoring sites, which, taken together, are supposed to reflect and quantify dynamic changes in the coast, including perhaps the most critical metric of all…absolute elevation and elevation relative to mean sea level.
A shift from south to north in wind direction can alter the emergent (visible) land area by a huge amount, so aerial flyovers and surveys are purely qualitative and of very limited value.
On that issue, the article includes the following quote from Jerome Zeringue, director of the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR):
…it’s still unknown what is causing the current marsh die-off, he said. One possibility is that it involves the elevation of the marsh itself, but right now, no one really knows.
In writing her article I wish that Wold had pressed Dr. Turnipseed on the status of the coastal monitoring program and why they need to resort to qualitative aerial surveys, just like in the old days. .Not a word was said about elevation surveying or LIDAR, for example.
Pinch me; I was quoted!
Yours truly was quoted in an editorial in today’s The Times-Picayune re the risk of aggressive cleanup of Louisiana barrier beaches.That’s the good news.
The bad news is that I inadvertently erased everything on my little Macpro desktop so I’m temporarily unable to use my Gimp (photo shop) software effectively. I’ll work on it but meanwhile have a great weekend.