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Delta dolphins present Trump-like impediment to coastal program

Tursiops trumpista

Tursiops trumpista creates a stumbling block to the program to protect and restore the largest delta in N.America. It also provides fodder for Donald Trump’s generic dismissal of environmental regulations.

by Len Bahr, Ph.D.

For decades we coastal advocates with a bottom-line bent have argued, on the basis of an overwhelming volume of delta science, that sustaining at least portions of the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Delta Complex (MARDC) is fundamentally contingent on the release of massive pulses of river water and sediments during peak river flood stage into open water areas far upstream from the Bird’s Foot Delta. This action, which should theoretically have been on line and in use years ago, has been delayed by a paralyzing combination of local politics, funding uncertainties, agency pettiness, and permitting and land rights issues.

According to the 2017 draft master plan currently out for public comment, the long wait for the first such sediment diversion project is finally almost over.  The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project, which has been promoted and vetted for decades and which has been subjected to extensive modeling and design studies, has now become the keystone project…the centerpiece of all public discussions of Louisiana’s entire coastal program.

On February 19 published an article by Bob Marshall reporting that the minimum time required to permit this project is ‘down’ to 2.5 years — barring unforeseen problems. That sounded positive until, to my dismay, on February 26 the published an important follow-up piece by Marshall, on a looming obstacle to the implementation of the sediment diversion project.

Here’s a quote from Marshall’s February 26 article:

The river diversions that are key to the state’s plan to rebuild wetlands could lower the salinity of the water in areas such as Barataria Bay to levels that would kill the dolphins. To prevent that, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 could require the National Marine Fisheries Service to block the diversions or force major modifications.

And the typical solutions to such critter-vs.-project conflicts are not available for this one.

Concern about the freshening effect of the Mid-Barataria project on the habitat of local bottle-nosed dolphins in Barataria Bay may have now become a show stopper.

How ironic that an environmental regulation aimed at protecting a vulnerable coastal species could block an action to sustain the habitat on which these beloved animals ultimately depend. Here’s the Hobson’s choice: (1) to pull the plug on a project that provides a source of river water and suspended sediment essential to sustain a deltaic ecosystem with international significance, in order to buy a few year’s extended lifetime for a small population of dolphins; or (2) to endanger this local dolphin population by implementing the first element of a project designed to preserve the region for all other groups, including humans.

This irony plays right into the GOP argument that environmental regulations represent an animal rights biased, unjustified hindrance to socioeconomic progress. It also provides a segue into the frightening theme of Donald Trump’s marked hostility to environmental regulations of all stripes, especially those related to climate change, as discussed in a February 10 article by Timothy Cama in The Trump administration is clearly becoming an existential threat to the program to protect and restore the MARDC.

As an example, this morning (February 28) Timothy Cama and Jordan Fabien reported in that later in the day Donald Trump would issue an executive order reversing the Obama-initiated rule on defining waters of the United States (WOTUS). Here’s a quote:

The 2015 regulation, also known as Waters of the United States, asserts federal power over small waterways such as wetlands, headwaters and ponds, requiring Clean Water Act permits for any actions that could harm or pollute them. The Obama administration said 117 million Americans’ drinking water relies on those waterways.

The rule is currently on hold. The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, ordered it halted in 2015 while numerous lawsuits challenging the rule wind their ways through the court system.

I must assume that someone in the CPRA is attempting to figure a way around the NOAA restrictions on jeopardizing the local dolphins. It bears repeating that, absent the use of massive sediment diversion projects, the entire coastal program is doomed to fail. When push comes to shove, we must implement the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like batteries of lawyers have been working overtime to pull the “dolphins in danger” argument out of their butts, and attempt to use it against sediment diversions. Kind of like the contrarian absurdities of certain LSU Boyd Professors.

    • Anonymous says:

      Anonymous, most comments on LaCostPost offer views and opinions with some kind of supporting argument. Your comment offers nothing but insults and name calling.

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        Small potatoes by comparison. Some guy on The Advocate thought the US 5th Cir was bribed to toss the Levee Bd suit against oil.

        Again, as to dolphins, see “mule-on-the-bridge,” movie Patton in 1970, about a real life 1943 event in Italy (if memory serves).

        If the Master Plan folks can make their case, dolphins won’t even be speed bumps on the road to construction.

        • Anonymous says:

          What’s to keep the Master Plan folks from making their case?

          • Kelly Haggar says:

            This one is easy; Ed B’s will take more time ;).

            Scroll around to Prof Ed R’s comments and the ones from Chris M. If just what’s here isn’t enough for you to realize there’s “trouble in River City” then I’m not gonna try harder.

  2. Edward Bodker says:


    Nice post.

    What are the scientific responses to Ed Richard’s comments? So many seem to be asking similar questions and making similar comments regarding sea level rise, subsidence and the practicality of the master plan. Seems like Ed Richard’s analysis deserves a response more substantial than…”if we do nothing…”


  3. Chris McLindon says:


    It is hard to look at this USGS study and not conclude that land loss during large hurricanes is concentrated at points where river water is entering the marsh:

    As you noted in your May 2013 post:

    “Several researchers, including LSU Boyd Professor Gene Turner, USGS scientist Chris Swarzenski and Massachusetts scientists John Teal and Linda Deegan have warned that injecting river water into the Mississippi delta could do more harm than good. They argue that adding nitrogen-rich river water to deltaic marshes with organic soils can stimulate aboveground marsh production, while reducing root production and the soil binding capacity for which coastal wetlands are known.”

    The use of this conclusion to argue in favor of sediment diversions over freshwater diversions misses the point. It is the volume of nutrient-loaded water entering the marsh that appears to be the cause of land loss. The question is whether the sediment component can make up for and exceed the loss of marsh area caused by the water component. The total loss figures from this study greatly exceed any estimates for land-building for sediment diversions.

    There is also the issue of wetlands loss caused by erosion at the site of a sediment diversion. This was the case at the West Bay Sediment Diversion, and it is generally accepted that every sediment diversion will initially cause a net loss in land area due to erosion. While there has been a significant effort to model the behavior of sediment in the river channel, and as it moves through the diversion, there have been no models of what will happen to the sediment after it leaves the diversion. At West Bay it spread out as a thin veneer across the bottom of the open bodies of water. Alex Kolker et al. concluded in their 2013 study that it would be unlikely to build new land in less than a few decades.

    The question then becomes should be risk the loss of wetlands caused by diversions for the promise of new land several decades into the future. The “Medium scenario” in the Master Plan prediction is based on a 2-foot rise in sea level in the next 50 years. It is highly unlikely that any deposition of river-borne sediments, natural or artificial, will be capable of maintaining elevation in this scenario. The question seems to answer itself.

    • Chris-
      As you well know, the quote that you highlighted from my post in May 2013 is taken out of context and does not reflect my conviction that pulsed sediment diversions are the only possible long term solution for sustainable delta restoration. Nevertheless, absent serious action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions within the next two decades would likely negate all the benefits of such diversion projects. I don’t see the relevance of Barras’ paper on short term hurricane impacts on landscape change, which is a distraction from the primary discussion.
      You oil and gas guys need to acknowledge the impact of your industry. A good first step would be to agree to pay a third of the cost of the Mid-Barataria diversion project.

      • Chris McLindon says:


        I have been working through the New Orleans Geological Society for three years to get my industry to participate in the coastal program. The most valuable short term contribution is knowledge base and seismic data. To date we have arranged for access to over $200 million of industry seismic data for area universities. This data is currently being used in eight graduate-level research projects at UNO, Tulane and ULL that are attempting to study near-surface geology and its relationship to subsidence and wetlands loss. The original donation of a 3-D seismic survey to Tulane and UT Austin resulted in this vitally important study:

        As you noted in the same May 2013 post, subsurface geology has never been considered in the design and planning of the coastal program. There has never been an attempt to map the near surface geology at the site of the Mid-Barataria Diversion. Nobody has any idea what would happen if the area were loaded with concentrated deposit of sand. It may end up accelerating the rate of subsidence.

        The contribution of geological knowledge base and data from the industry can ultimately be much more effective than throwing dollars at a project that has not yet been thoroughly vetted. In order for near-surface geological interpretation to have its maximum effect, it must be integrated with accurate subsidence measurements. We are working blindfolded when it comes to integrating subsidence. The CPRA models are essentially guesswork.

        There are currently 12 Continuously Operating Reference Stations that can measure subsidence in southeast Louisiana. The same area is covered by over 200 weather stations. Attempting to forecast and model the impacts of subsidence with 12 stations is like trying to report and forecast the weather with 12 rain gauges.

        The most effective short-term expenditure in the coastal program would be to dramatically increase the coverage of GPS stations capable of measuring subsidence. This along with a cooperative engagement with the oil and gas industry to fully integrate geology into the coastal program is the solution to the perceived budget crisis. It is very likely that the revenue source that CPRA is looking for will come from cost savings derived from properly designing and implementing projects based on accurate subsidence and geological interpretation.

  4. Why the Master Plan will not protect Louisiana and what we should do instead

    Coastal Louisiana is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico. While the media focuses on the loss of land, polls of residents indicate that the real concern is the flood risk to the communities, farms, and businesses in southern Louisiana. The Louisiana Coastal Preservation and Restoration Authority has just rolled out the 2017 Coastal Master Plan. The Master Plan proposes using dredging and river diversions to build on the edges of the coast in areas of open water. The goal is to reduce the flood risk by slowing the overall loss of land. Many scientists question whether this land can be built, how long it will last, and the financial and environmental costs of trying to build it. It is not necessary to resolve these scientific controversies because slowing the overall loss of land will not protect communities, farms, and businesses from hurricane surge and the day to day flooding driven by sea level rise and subsidence.

    The estimated cost of the Master Plan range from $50-100 billion or more, over a 50 year time period. Recognizing the scientific uncertainty about the proposed projects, the proponents of the Master Plan argue that it is better to do something than nothing, that we are no worse off if the projects do not work. But time and money are limited. The tens of billions of dollars that are proposed for Master Plan projects would be better spent on other projects that would provide real and immediate protection, such as maintaining existing levees. This would make coastal communities safer and buy time for longer term strategies to migrate away from the coast.

    Read the entire article here:

    • Ed-
      Your bleak assessment of the likelihood of success of the master plan is well taken, given its cost, tepid public support, and state of scientific uncertainty, although I strongly disagree with your implication that raising levees is the better alternative to reconnecting the river to its delta. Proponents of flood protection by levees in a sinking deltaic system create the moral hazard of implying that life can go as usual behind costly earthen barriers.

      • Len,

        As I explain in the article, levees are not the long term solution, they just buy time until the area can be depopulated. Now we have the moral hazard of the NFIP saying that people in NO don’t need flood insurance, while sitting behind inadequate and deteriorating levees. The coast will be underwater, the uncertainty is the timeframe and the intervention of catastrophic hurricanes.


        • Anonymous says:

          Thanks Ed R. Your article puts into perspective the alternate view of CPRA’s over reaching M.P. that promises to save coastal Louisiana through ever more planning, money and engineering. I wonder why we never hear about these points from CPRA.

    • To Whom It May Concern:
      I presented my thoughts on the state’s 2017 draft coastal master plan in this post in January:
      This master plan will be critiqued in public on Friday, March 10 at 1:00 PM during the 2017 Environmental Law Summit at the Tulane Law School. The discussion will take the form of a panel discussion among Mark Davis, Bren Haase and myself (Len Bahr). This event should be well worth the time of coastal advocates of all points of view.

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        1. Prof Ed was on the 2015 panel. It’s where most of the audience discovered for the first time that wetlands per se do NOT reduce surge. Even the Corps has disowned the stock “2.7 miles reduces 1 ft” claim and that was 8 or 9 years ago. (Heidi Nepf out of MIT has been poking holes in that old chestnut since 2005 or so.) Elevation does (S La doesn’t have any) and dense forests of tall trees can (but we cut them down with pull boats between 1880-1920, then the scraps sank), so Prof Ed is correct.

        3. We have a 6/77 chance of getting some structural geology into the CPRA. Wish us luck?

        2. I attended the 2016 panel on the oil suits. Grossly imbalanced panel; all 4 were plaintiffs. Still stuck on erosion. Sad.

  5. Len,

    1. One view of that diversion you so strongly support is:

    2. For coastal purposes, you can ignore the “waters” rule and today’s Exec Ord about it. (If you nonetheless still want to read it anyway, see: It’s purely inland/404 stuff. No effect on Sec 10. I’ve already learned many of your readers can’t tell the difference (or don’t want to?), but the two – – 10 and 404 – – actually are apples and oranges.

    3. As for dolphins, they should be any obstacle to either Trump or JBE. Nothing in your posting tonight changes my original comment when the story first appeared in The Lens some 6 days ago:


    I don’t know how to say this any more gently . . . or even if I should say it at all . . . but if the coast is in as much trouble as the proponents claim, and if the odds of their fix/correction working are similarly as high as the proponents also claim, then the fate of a few dolphins by comparison should amount to . . . what? Remember, this is the same gummit which under the previous prez approved wind farms in CA which regularly “take” eagles, and even a rare/endangered Calif Condor now and then.

    Those of us of a certain age ought to be reminded of the mule-on-the-bridge scene in 1970’s Patton.



    • OOPS!! meant to say “should NOT be” My bad.

    • Edward Bodker says:


      Thanks for posting Trump’s Exec. Order. I read it but it’s legal language I don’t clearly understand. It seems important to understand what it means regardless of the position one may take about it. Sounds like it’s intended to strengthen use and minimize regulations. But if you or someone listening could explain how this E.O. is written to accomplish this, it would be helpful. Is this order changing anything about who could be sued or held responsible? Does it say anything about how protecting waters from pollution would be enforced in the absence of previous regulations?

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        for Ed B

        GOING FROM MEMORY and I’M NOT WRITING A LAW REVIEW ARTICLE HERE. [although I’ve done enough research going back to the 1300s in England that I could write one book-length. Maybe one day I will ;).]

        “regardless of the position one may take about it” Ed B, take a bow for saying that. We got rules for how rules are supposed to be made. By whom. About what. Those kinds of questions do not have an EFFING thing to do with “wise” “foolish” “cheap” “expensive.”

        “Who can sue and/or for what?” No effect at all. There’s never been any private right of action under navigable waters (mainly Sec 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899). There has always been a right to sue under 404, the 1977 amendments to the Clean Water Act. This E.O. only deals with inland stuff; Sec 404. It has no effect on the coast; none on Sec 10. Besides, the 5th Cir just smacked the East Bd and the trial lawyers on coastal suing, so don’t get your hopes up on coastal suing. And that’s just on procedural stuff. Didn’t touch the merits.

        [added by Kelly] Yes, the Mississippi is a nav water for hundreds of miles upriver of “the ebb and flow of the tide.” So there’s absolutely Sec 10 a LONG way from the beach/coast. Still doesn’t matter to the E.O. It’s chasing something else; how far away from a nav water AND by what method/means may the Corps take jurisdiction over a wetland? (“Isolated” wetlands did NOT begin with SWANCC in 2001. The Corps lost Wilson in 1998 at the 4th Cir and did not appeal it.) I’ll send Len a Corps map from 2001 right after they lost SWANCC (5-4). There has been a long simmering fight between HQ Corps and HQ EPA about “adjacent.” Corps wanted a narrower limit, something in feet. After losing that SWANCC case, the Corps was trying to sort out what positions it could defend. Stevens in dissent called for the Corps to write new rules, “and speedily so.” After the mixed results of Rapanos in 2006, the Chief (he called it a loss for the Corps) wrote a concurrence to tell the Corps to come back with a reasonable, more limited definition. Also that pulling the “advanced notice of proposed rule making” in 2003 was a mistake. After the Corps lost Sackett (9-0), Alito wrote a concurrence just to say Congress needs to fix this mess by writing a clearer law.

        “Minimize regs/strengthen use” Yup. There’s already a nationwide injunction against the new definition/rule. The E.O. tells them to re-study that rule using the Scalia position in Rapanos, which only got 4 votes. Must be a nav water; must have a vague boundary between land and water. BTW, if you read Stevens’ dissent carefully, he agrees that’s the correct limits of Corps jurisdiction. Wetlands along nav waters.

        “Pollution” No effect, although the Greens tried that logic in SWANCC and still lost anyway. Bless their hearts; they never give up trying to use “rivers on fire” and “barrels of tri-ethyl-megadeath” as an excuse to regulate soggy spots in cattle pastures. Now they trot out Flint MI, as if that has the square root of dog poop to do with Rapanos or Sackett. Or Needham and Harken in the 5th Cir. Or Chevron Pipeline. the very first wetland case in the nation after Rapanos. The trial court couldn’t find any law in Rapanos, so he fell back to his circuit, which was Needham and Harken, thus ruling against the Corps. None of that a damn thing to do with pollution.

        One last thing about E.O.s making a difference. Trump’s “Dear Colleague” letter revoking the previous LGBT bathroom quasi-“rule” just caused the Supremes to vacate and remand (cancel and do over) the 4th Cir opinion upholding it. So and E.O. can most definitely produce large and immediate effects.

        • Anonymous says:

          Thanks Kelly,

          I guess we’ll find out what it all means soon enough. Regulations can be overly complicated but untethered exploitation can be very destructive. I don’t have the answer, but I suspect unlimited economic growth has seen it’s best days.

          • Edward Bodker says:


          • Kelly Haggar says:

            Glad to help out.

            No idea on how long “soon enough” will take. There was a “CWA Restoration Act” introduced right after SWANCC in 2001 and for the 12 or 14 years. Got out of committee in the Senate once; no floor vote anywhere ever. Feingold (Senate) and Oberstar (House) both lost in 2010.
            Congress could amend the CWA much faster than the ad law notice-and-comment process could ever work. No idea if they will do that. Obama had the votes his first 2 years to get anything he wanted. 404 didn’t make his cut.

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