Coastal plan suffers from narrow context, subservient science and excessive political caution re climate change. BTW, it also fails to offset land loss.
by Len Bahr, Ph.D.
On January 16 I posted comments on Louisiana’s 2017 draft coastal master plan (CMP), the latest iteration in a series of similar documents going back almost 25 years, each purporting to describe the potential salvation of the Deltaic Plain and Chenier Plain that comprise the rapidly shrinking Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Delta Complex (MARDC). My post was based solely on information in the plan body, not including the technical material found in the appendices.
Since then I discovered in Appendix 4, Section C that the effects of implementing the major projects designed to offset pending landscape inundation are highly unlikely to be successful. In other words, very little reduction in land loss with respect to the future without action is projected in upcoming decades, as illustrated in Fig. 1, which shows the SE portion of the coast, both with and without projects.
This sobering conclusion differs substantially from the far more optimistic 2012 version of the plan, which was based on more conservative projections of relative sea level rise than are shown in Fig.2. In my judgment the new projections included in the 2017 CMP do not justify or warrant the $50 billion effort proposed. The outcome is so much at variance with expectations that a new approach is required.
On March 10 I participated in a three person panel charged with critiquing the draft 2017 CMP at the 22nd annual Tulane Summit on Environmental Law. My fellow panelists included Cory Mller with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) and Mark Davis, executive director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. Although our panel had been advertised to include Bren Haase, a spokesman for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), in fact no one from that august policy-making body showed up to explain and defend the plan.
This post summarizes my comments at the Tulane forum, with a few additional thoughts added. My views are based on 10 years as a practitioner of coastal research at the former LSU Center for Wetland Resources; 18 years of work primarily at the interface between science and policy at the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities (GOCA); and 9 years as a retired coastal advocate and candid critic of the ongoing program to save America’s Delta.
During my official coastal tenure I witnessed the development of multiple coastal plans preceding the current CMP, including a CWPPRA restoration plan in 1993 and a coastal blue print and white paper issued later in the 90s. I also witnessed the release of Coast 2050 in 1999 and the 2007 coastal master plan, following Hurricane Katrina, when coastal restoration expanded from coastal restoration into coastal protection and restoration. After retiring in 2008 I avidly followed the rollouts of the 2012 and 2017 master plans as a lay observer with no official policy oversight.
There are lots of reasons to fault the latest CMP, in terms of its upbeat tone and undue emphasis on specific projects and details. With all due respect for the animals that live within the MARDC I’m extremely unimpressed with attempts to characterize project effects on alligator habitat benefits, for example, as compared to offsetting land loss. The CMP lacks focus and devotes far too many pages to platitudes, pretty pictures, and user unfriendly tables, interspersed with misleading and politically timid statements that dodge important political issues. What concerns me most can be broken into five fundamental issues:
A. Global warming and its sister issues are never addressed as an existential, stand alone challenge.
B. The deltaic context of the coastal program is totally overlooked.
C. The paramount issue of the sediment budget deficit for the MARDC is not specifically addressed.
D. The restoration ‘footprint’ or domain is far too restricted, e.g,, it excludes most of the Atchafalaya Basin.
E. Several potentially game-changing concepts that could dramatically increase plan success are ignored.
A. The climate change issue
The CMP never directly addresses anthropogenic climate change, instead using sea level rise as a proxy for the other impacts of global warming, including ocean acidification, extreme storms and other record setting weather incidents and out of season drought and flood events. The phrase ‘Global warming’ never appears in the document and ‘climate change’ appears only 9 times in the text…never addressed as a human-caused phenomenon or as a specific topic of existential significance. Page 2 of the Executive Summary of the CMP includes the following vapid, ambiguous and misleading statement, which implies that climate change is not a human-caused phenomenon with far reaching consequences:
The culprits to (sic) this (Louisiana coastal) land loss include the effects of climate change, sea level rise, subsidence, hurricanes, storm surges, flooding, disconnecting the Mississippi River from coastal marshes, and human impacts (my emphasis).
We can’t afford to be namby pamby about this subject. On March 9, the day before our Tulane panel convened, the New Republic carried an article by Emily Atkin on two bills by Sen. Lamar Smith (R TX), chairman of the Senate Science Committee and infamous climate change denier, that would greatly restrict how EPA uses science. That same day Donald Trump’s brand new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt denied the role of CO2 in climate change. Donald Trump now proposes huge federal budget cuts to NOAA, EPA and NASA for climate-related science, while eliminating Obama’s pending strict new fuel emission standards for automobiles. I call to your attention an excellent article on GOP climate change denial by David Roberts published by Vox on March 11.
As if these national issues weren’t sufficiently outrageous, the EBR Parish BESE Board has decided to evaluate new science standards for public school curricula, over concern that they give too much credence to climate change and evolution. Note a letter to the editor published on March 18 in The Advocate by Greg Gasparecz, former under secretary at DEQ, who praises the CMP but implicitly criticizes its failure to discuss the need for action on climate change. Here’s a quote:
…there is little reason to think that rising sea level will not cause widespread devastation to south Louisiana in the next 50 to 80 years. While the CPRA Master Plan may be viable for a 1-to-2-foot rise, there is nothing we can do to save the coast and protect ourselves from a 3-to-6-foot rise in sea level.
B. It’s a delta, stupid!
The CMP is a narrowly focused, provincial document that never portrays the challenge of saving the largest delta in N. America with issues far different from non-deltaic coasts. A casual reader of the draft CMP would never know that the challenge to save S. Louisiana is any different from the effort to address the threatened coasts of Miami, Norfolk or New York. No mention is made of timely contemporary literature on the MARDC and other major deltas, including these highly relevant papers by LSU emeritus professor John W. Day, Jr. and his coauthors: Day et al 2016a; Day et al 2016b; and Day et al.2016c.
I’m particularly concerned that the draft CMP treats our rapidly degrading MARDC as though it existed in a vacuum, unrelated to and unaffected by the ecological and socioeconomic changes that are happening throughout the world. These include a global population that is predicted to peak at 10 billion in 2050; the approaching break-even point for the energy return on investment (ERoI) for oil and gas production; and the projected bleaching of 90% of the world’s coral reefs by 2050 from warmer and more acidic ocean water.
C. Sediment diversion limitations
An iconic paper by Blum and Roberts in 2009 predicted only marginal odds of success in terms of saving the MARDC by reconnecting the river to its delta with the implementation of sediment diversion projects. Their conclusion was based on a 50% reduction in suspended sediment load in the Mississippi River system, since the 1950s when multiple dams were installed on the Missouri River and its tributaries. This paper and its warning has not been properly factored into the ongoing dialogue on sediment diversion projects.
D. The CMP domain is far too restricted
The maps shown in the 2017 CMP are artificially constrained by political boundaries and traditional views of the official LA coastal zone. For example, the entire Atchafalaya Basin north of the ICWW is excluded from the restoration zone. This may be because a so-called ‘Atchafalaya Basin Program’ has long been on the DNR books and treated as independent of the coast. The Old River Control Structure about fifty miles upriver from Baton Rouge, is also excluded. More on this later.
The Baton Rouge Deluge in August, not mentioned in the CMP, showed how extensive the MARDC really is and how naive it is to deal only with its fringe. A physical model under construction to simulate the impact of various projects is likewise far too limited in scope. I’d like to know who made these decisions, and on what basis.
E. CMP ignores alternative concepts for augmenting plan success
Noted Louisiana consulting geologist and ecologist G. Paul Kemp and his colleagues published a paper in 2016 that could be the answer to the sediment deficit pointed out by Blum and Roberts. If the sediment trapped behind the small dams on the lower Missouri R. tributaries were allowed to bypass these dams, the delta building capacity of the lower river could be doubled (Kemp et al. 2016a).
Kemp and others also reported in 2016 that, because of climate change, the northern Gulf of Mexico will likely experience more frequent high rainfall and runoff events during upcoming decades — ideal for a pulsed sediment diversion strategy for land building (Kemp, et al. 2016b). Unfortunately and inexplicably, the work of Kemp and his coauthors reflected in these potentially game changing papers was either overlooked or purposely dismissed during the drafting of the CMP.
A third potentially game changing concept that was ignored as the CMP was drafted was the possible beneficial use of Old River Control Structure, one of the largest water control devices in the world, which is currently used to maintain a static 70/30 split in river flow between the lower Mississippi and Atchafalaya distributaries. Optimizing these flow streams for different conditions could be a powerful land building tool but excluding the Atchafalaya River Basin precludes its consideration. The Corps of Engineers would doubtlessly object to both the dam bypassing strategy and the ORCS concept…but so what; the CMP is a state vision.
Additional issues and recommendations
The CMP calls for spending $18 billion to dredge sediments to create temporary marshes vs. $5 billion to reconnect the river to its delta. Who made this decision? The CPRA created a plethora of advisory committees and focus groups but the CMP doesn’t include a flow chart to show the basis for policy development.
Governor John Bel Edwards’name appears on the cover of the CMP. Rather than dancing around the climate change elephant in the room so as to appease the GOP legislators who must sign off on the document, why not put them on the spot by forcing them to either support the plan and to acknowledge climate change, or to reject the CMP and face their constituents. Repealing and replacing the CMP should not be an option.
- Back to the drawing board: The CPRA should acknowledge that the draft CMP as written does not justify spending $50 to $100 billion – even if we had that kind of funding. The CPRA should commission an expedited revised strategy, based on current delta science and projected global changes.
- Climate change: A disclaimer is needed on p1 to the effect that, absent global action on reducing greenhouse gases within the next decade, the entire planning exercise will have been moot.