Delta dolphins present Trump-like impediment to coastal program
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 theadvocate.com 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 advocate.com 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 thehill.com. 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 thehill.com 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.