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Call to restore coast rings hollow

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Steve Cochran repeats EDF truism number one. Photo from The Advocate.

Steve Cochran repeats EDF truism number one. Photo from The Advocate.

by Len Bahr, Ph.D.

Paying lip service to coastal restoration

Virtually everyone in Louisiana supports serious efforts to save our coast – whatever ‘saving’ means – and it clearly means less and less every day. Support for acting to sustain at least portions of America’s Delta is 100 miles wide – but only inches thick.

Our next governor could very well oversee the point at which the public despairs of ever seeing meaningful restoration projects and begins to ridicule further pie in the sky planning goals. Meanwhile however, rose colored calls to save the coast continue ad nauseum.

As a case in point, on August 13 The Advocate published a guest column on the need to act before it’s too late, by Steve Cochran, with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Kimberly Reyher with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL). This column is rife with slogans but bereft of substance.

The authors advocate what has already been more or less agreed to – memorializing the tenth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by investing Louisiana’s ~$6 Billion coastal windfall from fines against BP to implement coastal restoration projects listed in the state’s Coastal Master Plan. What a novel idea.

This vapid opinion piece dodges or glosses over three ‘M’ factors, each a potential deal breaker in terms of successful coastal restoration: money, mud, and muscle (political willpower). Restoration will never be achieved without resolving each issue.

Money

In terms of the first factor, there’s a zero percent chance that U.S taxpayers will foot the $100+ Billion tab that researchers at the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy estimate as the realistic cost of the 50 year Master Plan. Thus the 15 year payment schedule for BP to settle its $6 Billion debt to the state would support implementing only a fraction of the restoration cost.

Mud

Suspended sediment carried by the Mississippi River is down over 50% since nine dams were constructed on the upper Missouri River during the 1950s. Thus the jury is still out on the mud budget for the lower Mississippi and whether sufficient sediment even exists to rebuild our delta.

Muscle

In terms of political muscle, let’s just say that state officials aren’t known for their courage in looking out for coastal constituents when lobbyists open up their wallets.

So-called credible science

The column extols the scientific foundation for the latest master plan but it abstains from criticizing the blatant willful ignorance of officials who deny the overwhelming technical evidence for anthropogenic climate change – a process to which our delta is particularly vulnerable. Bragging about coastal science used in the Master Plan ignores the fact that state officials deny the fundamental conclusions of that science. America’s Delta began to form during interglacial global warming at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch ~8,000 years ago, two millennia before Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden to live among dinosaurs in the Creationist universe taught by many Louisiana science teachers – thanks to Governor Jindal and our legislators.

Coastal impacts of the energy industry

Cochran and Reyhel are scrupulously silent on the delta damage caused by onshore oil and gas exploration and extraction. An agreement by Louisiana’s sacred cow industry to repair and/or pay for fixing its coastal footprint would dramatically reduce the need for taxpayer-funded restoration – and could very well spell the difference between restoration success or failure.

Finally two stylistic criticisms are in order. The authors’ repetition of the tired shibboleth of a football field chunk of landscape lost per hour perpetuates the false meme of a linear, rather than a sporadic process of landloss over time. In addition, our delta doesn’t have a ‘coastline’ but rather a fractal-like interface of land and water that precludes distinguishing where one stops and the other begins.

On August 15 The Advocate published a more realistic article by AP correspondent Cain Burdeau on the reality of saving the coast. Among others, he quoted Jim Tripp, who represents the old school EDF dating back to before the NGO assumed its public relations persona.

One would hope that future coastal recommendations from environmental NGOs would offer a lot more candor and a lot less fluff.

Editor’s note-

Since posting this article my brother-in-law Maurice Fox informed me that the NYTimes published a letter today by noted Tulane Law Professor Oliver Houck on the odds of success in terms of saving the delta. Here’s a quote:

There is no hope of restoring the coastal Louisiana we once knew. Sea rise is accelerating, the substrate is collapsing, and the oil and gas industry has torn the surface to shreds. Some 50 miles of marshes that protected New Orleans are largely gone. The Mississippi no longer carries sediment loads sufficient to offset these losses. We can maintain a few salients like New Orleans and create several deltas. That’s the best-case scenario.   

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  10. Chris McLindon says:

    Len,
    A few years ago I had a wonderful summer vacation in Pensacola. The water was clear and warm. There were no seaweed or jellyfish, and the first sand bar, which can commonly be 50 to 60 yards offshore was about 5 yards from the beach. The bar was emergent except at the highest tide, so we could set up our chairs out of the beach traffic and my granddaughter could play in the shallow lagoon between the bar and the beach with no surf to knock her over. I have very fond memories of that particular configuration of the landscape. I would like to think that it could have been that way every time I went back to the same condo, but I know better. Beaches and sand bars are eternally changing natural entities. The rate at which changes occur in this system is well within our ability to perceive the system as being dynamic, and we have no expectation that the configuration of the beach will be same from summer to summer, or even from week to week.

    The thing is that the deltaic wetlands of coastal Louisiana are no less dynamic than the beaches of Pensacola – they only change at a slower rate. For the average person the rate of change seems to be just below our innate ability to perceive it. As a result we have developed a collective perception that there was “the coastal Louisiana we once knew” to quote Oliver Houck. There is no such thing. It is a phantom of our imagination. The coast of Louisiana has never stopped changing. The vestiges of Trinity Shoals, the Outer Shoals, Ship Shoal, and the St. Bernard Shoals show us the former extends of the coastal wetlands throughout the past 6,000 years. Each of these sand bodies was once a set of distributary mouth bars of an active delta. After the abandonment of each delta these mouth bars evolved first into headland beaches and then barrier islands. They all eventually succumbed to the relentless natural forces of subsidence, and most of them are now 20 to 30 feet below sea level. These shoals are the end members of the delta cycle. Each of the 16 component deltas that built up the coastal wetlands of Louisiana has gone through this natural life cycle. The overwhelming majority of the new land created in the formative stages of each delta cycle has subsided below the surface. One could reasonably estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 square miles of land loss occurred over the past 6,000 years.

    I believe that the developments we have seen in the coastal academic community over the past few years are a result of people like Oliver Houck having lived long enough to truly appreciate the dynamic nature of the delta system. Most scientists are beginning to appreciate that we are not going to restore the coastal wetlands to anything remotely resembling what they looked like in the past. I believe that we can embrace a new mission to achieve sustainability. We have to first appreciate that we are living in a dynamic system, and accept the realities that it will be in a continuous state of flux. We should then set out a major academic effort to identify the primary agents of change and work toward predictive models of the locations and magnitudes of changes likely to occur in the coming decades. I believe that subsidence due to the movement of geologic faults most reasonably explains the patterns and rates of change that have been measured over the past few decades. I also believe that mapping these faults across the coastal plain is the best first step toward developing a predictive model for sustainability.
    Achieving such an objective is within our reach., if we can work cooperatively to get there.

  11. Ed Bodker says:

    Len,

    Nice post…on the mark.

    “This column is rife with slogans but bereft of substance.” I agree but how else could it be, since we’ve already sliced and diced the coast and the ongoing forces of continuing degradation (sea level rise and subsidence) are seen as processes to overcome without being fully acknowledged for what they are. It boggles my mind that so many in this state, politicians and the public alike, want to restore something being driven by sea level rise and yet don’t “believe” global warming exists. If at least half the budget for the master plan doesn’t go towards a strategy for addressing climate change, then we’re whistling in the grave yard.

  12. Len,
    Once again we agree on something. But, I’m a little confused. You talk in a harsh, condemning manner about the political persona of the EDF. I seem to remember back in April, yours was one of 27 signatures on a letter promoted by and paid for by the EDF and NWF to urge citizens to continue the fight to reconnect the river with large scale diversions. This was a political ploy to maintain support for the controversial and unproven diversions that will wipe out our seafood and fishing industries, put thousands out of work, continue to shuffle millions to consulting firms and environmental groups, and all the while, as you say, the sediment budget in the river is not there. Yet you were solicited, (as were 163 others in a private email from Andy Nyman) and added your name to the list. Please take a stand one way or the other.

    Capt. George Ricks
    President, Save Louisiana Coalition

    • Capt. Ricks-
      I signed that letter at the behest of colleagues, while holding my nose. I’ve learned my lesson and now I write my own opinions, rather than signing on to comments written by a committee of coastal optimists.
      Like most of the coastal science community I strongly support sediment diversions to nourish America’s Delta, because there is no realistic alternative. Despite years of intensive study by objective delta experts, hydrologists and sedimentologists, the jury is still out as to whether the river currently carries sufficient sediment to offset net loss of landscape from levees, canals, subsidence and sea level rise (SLR).
      We won’t know the answer unless and until we build some large diversion projects to find out. If they don’t work at least we will have tried.
      Opponents of this conservative strategy remind me of those who are willing to risk war in the Middle East by walking away from the Iranian nuclear agreement rather than waiting to see whether it can work or not.
      Curious Len

  13. Coast Ghost says:

    Long gone are the days when the NGOs were a check to the balance.
    We need to never mention the football analogy again. It is too misleading.

    It’s time for a realist plan of what can be salvaged coast wise, and what we need put into hospice. You’re right, the American public will never put up that kind of money when they have their own restoration problems in their states.

  14. KC-
    You’re right. We’re not known for systems thinking when it comes to complex coastal issues, unless one includes the system of good ol’ boys and their snappily-dressed benefactors that gathers each Spring at the state capitol.
    Len

  15. Mike Beck says:

    A fine and welcome post, Len. You’ve been too lenient with the EDF.

    Environmentalism is the most science-driven political movement in history, and there was a time when the EDF embodied the best of that. If you recall their 20th century actions against, and later in cooperation with, Pacific Gas and Electric and McDonald’s, you see a successful evolution of strategy beyond the old model of just “sue the bastards.” EDF brought science and engineering to the table, not just in the abstract but with concrete solutions, along with superior economics that demonstrated Environmentalism as a winning economic strategy.

    And now this. Platitudes for us, and money for an oily, anti-science/anti-environment Louisiana politician. Does anyone know if they found any cash for James Inhofe last year?

    So, Len, next time you talk to Jim Tripp, or Steve Cochran, or any of our quisling friends at the EDF ask them for me: Does the D stand for denial or despair?

    • Michael-
      I remember those good old days when EDF stood for something other than protecting its foundation support – before P.C. opinion pieces were written by executive committees so as to carefully screen out all substantive issues.
      Len

  16. Len,

    Add to this the intellectually corrupt efforts of the “official” NOLA Resilience community with its recently (June 2015) published “NOLA Preliminary Resilience Assessment” (PRA) at http://www.nola.gov/resilience/pra/

    The state of New Orleans’ resilience to inevitable severe storms was definitively addressed by the Corps’ Independent Performance Evaluation Team (IPET) as being “a system in name only”. The PRA does not even recognize or even acknowledge the Corps’ “root cause” findings and exhibits not even an iota of systems thinking let alone best complex systems practices.

    The PRA completely ignores the need to consider residences as an integral and critical component in its flood protection “system” which in turn denies any organized effort to address proven and Federally-endorsed non-structural measures such as systematic elevation. In this, the City is acting in the interest of risk-denying special interest groups such as GNO Inc and its builder/developer/banker coalition to reduce flood insurance rates and avoid elevation.

    Secondly, the PRA focus excessively on the proposed Urban Water Plan which is entirely based on the assumption that structural flood protection will never fail and the worst problem will be due to subsidence and sea level rise. While I agree that those are two important concerns, I disagree that we can realistically ignore extreme storms and all these threats be integrated in risk proportionately-balanced solution.

    Together the Coastal Master Plan and the PRA portray a very flawed understanding of what a feasible and realistic system solution might look like. Both need deep and profound systems thinking of the kind that Louisiana’s education systems does not produce let alone appreciate a need.

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