So-called ‘Comprehensive’ 2017 Coastal Master Plan is anything but
by Len Bahr, Ph.D.
On December 10, 2016 the voters in Louisiana chose John N. Kennedy, a climate change denier, as its junior U.S. senator over his competitor Foster Campbell, who understands Louisiana’s existential vulnerability to global warming.
On December 19 the electoral college awarded the U.S. presidency to the invalid-dictorian of its class of 2016, a braggadocious real estate salesman with a conspiratorial bias against the ongoing and impending effects of climate change.
On January 2, 2017 the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) released its long-awaited draft of Louisiana’s comprehensive 2017 coastal master plan, which acknowledges anthropogenic climate change but understates its unequivocal significance to the potential success of the plan.
This post represents my reflections about the plan, based on ten years as a practicing coastal scientist at LSU and almost three decades of experience with the coastal restoration program, both as a participant/supporter and observer/critic. Specific recommendations for modifying the draft plan are presented below, a list that will be submitted in final form to the CPRA before the March 26 deadline for public comments. My first recommendation will call for the addition of a disclaimer on page one of the plan stipulating to the legislators who must vote to approve the document that, absent significant global action to reduce carbon emissions within the coming decade, the plan will become moot.
What’s at stake
The 2017 draft master plan represents the third swing by the CPRA at producing a workable strategy to salvage at least a portion of the largest delta in N. America. The first two versions of this plan were released and approved respectively by the Louisiana legislature in 2007 and 2012. A great deal of hope has accompanied the approval of each version but now, after five more years of serious effort on the part of hundreds of planners, state and federal agency staffers, consultants, scientists, stakeholder representatives and environmental advocates, the two million residents of S. Louisiana have some reason to be hopeful – but a lot of room to be skeptical.
My view of the plan
IMHO the current draft plan is overly optimistic, simplistic, and largely bereft of context. Not included is the challenge of saving and sustaining the entire Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Delta Complex, the largest delta in North America. This delta complex represents the economic and ecological business end of a watershed occupying 41% of the lower 48 states and part of Canada. The above graphic illustrates the overly restricted domain, or footprint of the plan.
Whereas the plan should be user friendly, concise, clear and candid, in fact it is bureaucratic, jargon-rich, and full of spin. While chock a bloc with pretty pictures, the plan glosses over serious challenges, with substantive information, including modeling results, buried in appendices. For example, figure 3.2 on pp 58-59, a graphic titled 2017 Coastal Master Plan Development Process, is incomprehensible. In short, absent serious modification this draft plan is likely to be shelved unread, alongside its predecessors.
The huge Miss. R. watershed presents opportunities to build upriver partners, which are ignored in the current document. For example, the issue of gulf hypoxia is mentioned only like a footnote at the very end of Chapter 5. The all time record Baton Rouge Deluge during August 2016, likely a symptom of climate change, is ignored, presumably considered unrelated to coastal issues. The realistic potential to double land-building suspended sediments in the lower river by modifying a series of small dams on the lower Missouri River is also inexplicably ignored. As noted above, anthropogenic climate change, which should be emphasized as a fundamental challenge to all coastal projects, is basically buried in fine print.
The Atchafalaya River, one of the two distributaries of the river system, which carries 66% of the suspended sediment load, is not even mentioned except for a proposed project to divert Atchafalaya water flow into Terrebonne Parish wetlands near the gulf. Ignoring the Atchafalaya River Basin precludes any discussion of using the Old River Control Structure as a way to optimize water flow between the two distributaries. Finally, the executive summary insufficiently emphasizes sediment diversion projects, which should be the centerpiece of the entire restoration enterprise.
The executive summary presents a shallow and misleading description of human vs. ‘natural’ causes for the 1,900 sq mi of coastal landscape that have become permanently flooded since the turn of the twentieth century. This paragraph omits two of the most destructive enterprises ever agreed to by the state: (1) damming off Bayou Lafourche from the river at Donaldsonville in 1904; and (2) dredging the infamous Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in 1963.
On January 3 TheAdvocate.com published an article by Bob Marshall, based at least in part on having interviewed Bren Haase, assistant administrator of the CPRA, who plays a major technical and coordinating role in the formulation of this plan. Marshall’s article points up the fact that the 2017 plan projects a net loss of coastal landscape by the year 2050 under a best case scenario. This strongly contrasts with a net gain of landforms, as projected by the 2012 plan.
Also on January 3, Nola.com|TheTimes-Picayune published a complementary article about the plan by Mark Schleifstein, who focused more than Marshall on specific projects in the plan. Marshall and Schleifstein are Pulitzer Prize winning colleagues and arguably the most knowledgable reporters on the state of our coast.
On January 5, Bob Marshall supplemented his piece in The Advocate with an article in TheLensNola.org, which quotes two prominent coastal authorities, Tor Tornqvist, Tulane U. coastal geologist and expert on subsidence; and Donald Boesch, Louisiana native and president of the Univ. of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies. I was encouraged by the frank expression of the pivotal role of climate change on the potential success of the plan.
Also on January 5, NOLA.com | TheTimes-Picayune announced the formation of a coastal team led by Mark Schleifstein to report on the status of efforts to restore the coast. I hope that this reflects widespread recognition of the critical nature of the restoration program.
On January 6, LPB’s Louisiana The State We’re In featured an intervew by Charlie Winham with Windell Curole and Bren Haase about the revised master plan, which was somewhat sardonically referred to as Louisiana’s Moon Shot. I would point out that Curole, who sits on the CPRA task force and heads up the Lower Lafourche Levee Board, is a long time skeptic of numerical modeling (on which most projections of future flood risk are based).
On January 7 TheIndependent.com out of Lafayette carried another article by Bob Marshall, again focused on the dire predictions in the plan and the need to elevate homes at risk, a project category described in the plan as non-structural flood control.
On January 8 The Advocate published an editorial calling for the Louisiana delegation to speak with one voice re the need for federal support for the plan. I was gratified by the explicit acknowledgment in this editorial of climate change. On the same day The Advocate ran a refreshingly candid op/ed by Stephanie Grace calling for the GOP to take climate change seriously. Could this be a sign that the Louisiana business community, as shown, for example, by local TV meteorologists, will follow suit?
On January 12 NOLA.com|TheTimes-Picayune published an op/ed by Governor Jon Bel Edwards that amounted to an unequivocal endorsement of the plan.
The Jindal Legacy
It’s important to remember that the2017 draft master plan is being released in the aftermath of the ruinous policy shadow of the Jindal years. Here’s a quote from an article by Jamelle Bouie, published in Slate.com on January 6:
During his two terms, Jindal slashed taxes on the wealthy, cut social services, and borrowed to make up the difference. To deal with years of massive budget shortfalls—$1.6 billion in 2015, Jindal’s final year in office—Louisiana has cut funding from education, health care, and criminal defense services, including $800 million from Medicaid services for the elderly and $142 million in funding for hospitals. Students face tuition hikes, and the poor are set to lose more services and assistance.
Most of the contributors to the draft plan are veterans of the Jindal years and, in fairness to these classified employees, their cautious and optimistic language in the draft plan could be explained by having worked within a markedly vindictive administration.
Specific issues that need to be addressed and/or corrected
- In a plan that is ostensibly purported to describe the salvation of the largest delta in North America the word delta is hardly mentioned, and only in fine print…and what about the huge watershed of the river system, the condition of which is vital to the river sediments and nutrients that pass Morgan City and New Orleans?
- The Atchafalaya River Basin above the Intracoastal Waterway is curiously excluded from the overall footprint of the plan. This means that the Old River Control Structure, the largest water control structure in the entire delta system, which could be used to optimize river flows between the two largest distributaries, is not on the table. The Atchafalaya River caries 66% of the total sediment carried by the river system. Here’s a telling quote from the USGS:
The Atchafalaya now carries ~84 x 106 metric tons of sediment annually (Allison et al., 2000), in comparison to the ~210 x 106 metric tons of sediment carried by the combined Mississippi–Red-Atchafalaya system (Milliman and Meade, 1983).
In terms of sediment delivery of the river system, the 2016 paper by Kemp, at al. is ignored. This despite its striking conclusion that suspended sediments in the lower river could be virtually doubled if Louisiana partnered with environmental interests to the north and west to modify a series of small dams on the lower Missouri River to allow trapped sediments to bypass the dams.
Also, in terms of water quality, the plan hardly mentions gulf hypoxia, primarily a consequence of excess nitrogen applied to corn fields in the Ohio River valley. This issue, which involves a number of states and provides an opportunity for a cooperative interstate partnership, is relegated to the very end of Chapter 5.
- Relative sea level rise used in the plan, including subsidence, is significantly lower than the worst case scenario of 6.5 ft by the year 2100 for sea level only.
- The highly contentious Morganza-to-the-Gulf project (MTTG) is listed for construction, despite its stupendous $8.4 billion cost and the damage it would do to existing coastal marshes. I have proposed that a hybrid version of the MTTG project should be explored as an alternative to MTTG, converting a massive seawall with expensive control structures into a series of parallel forested ridges designed to be overtopped during an extreme surge but dissipating most of the destructive energy. This could dramatically reduce cost and expand ecological benefits, while eliminating the strong scientific objections to the project.
- Neither the graphic showing restoration milestones and events on pp 30-31 nor the section titled progress made since 2007 on pp 34-35 includes the historic closure of MRGO in July 2009.
- On p51 reference is made to the LCA partnership with the Corps of Engineers. That partnership was summarily ended when Garret Graves, Bobby Jindal’s executive assistant for coastal activities, pulled the plug on it. Here’s a quote on p51 that doesn’t reflect the cancelation of the program:
The Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) program utilizes a systematic approach to coastal restoration and promotes critical near-term ecosystem restoration projects and large-scale studies and programs to restore natural features and ecosystem processes. CPRA and USACE are working on the LCA Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study, a $25.4 million study that assesses in-river processes and evaluates restoration opportunities in the adjacent basins. The project’s goal is to provide a decision-making framework for the management of a sustainable coastal ecosystem that integrates navigation, fisheries, flood control, land building, and the needs of coastal communities.
There you have it, some of my thoughts about the plan that need to be addressed by the CPRA to warrant the use of the adjective ‘comprehensive.’