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Coastal plan suffers from narrow context, subservient science and excessive political caution re climate change. BTW, it also fails to offset land loss.

Projected future without action compared to implementing projects listed in the CMP for SE Louisiana. Is that all there is?

Fig. 1. Projected future without action compared to implementing projects listed in the CMP for SE Louisiana. Is that all there is?

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.

Sea level rise projections not including effects of subsidence.

Fig. 2. Sea level rise projections not including effects of subsidence.

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.

Primary concerns

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 2016aDay et al 2016b; and Day et al.2016c.

Graphic from _

Fig. 3. Graphic from Day, et a;. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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  1. Keep beating the drums Len!

  2. Edward Bodker says:


    I hold that good science is our north star. But the political landscape has made for a foggy sky. I’m concerned that science is being twisted and perverted by vested interest who use it as a tool to gain more funding. Many may disagree with me, but I see this twisting becoming excessive because we are loosing our value for the arts, for good philosophy, poetry and for conscious religion. The same curiosity that grounds science also motivates the arts but that common thread seems to be unraveling. Science has made its case for global warming but the arts have been too weakened to give enough support. Too many scientists want to live isolated in factual details because they don’t have a willingness to join the discussion about the discovery and integration of truth that exceeds their personal expertise. The philosophy of this country and much of the world has devolved into a belief in perpetual economic growth and a fantasy that more accumulation of everything is always better. Poetic expression has too often become a brut pitch to sell a product and religion has become little more than prosperity preaching, or justification for an ideology. No wonder truth seems turned on its head to the point where partisanship means alternate truth vs. alternate truth.

    Admittedly, I’m bored with the common conversation about saving Louisiana’s wetlands. The notion that we can save wetlands with money without changing our attitude and acknowledging the implications of pollution and climate change is one underwhelming conversation.

    As pessimistic as I may sound, I’m also hopeful and fascinated by the incredible potential we have to understand we are integral with the earth, that the rights of humans are inseparable from the rights of other humans, animals and all the ecosystems of this world. There are wonderful questions waiting to be asked.

  3. Kelly Haggar says:

    Concerning “Can any meaningful engineering initiative succeed at restoration, if population growth, and ocean expansion continues?”

    I’ll skip all the philosophy disagreements and instead just settle for a rewording of that line to:

    “Can any meaningful engineering initiative succeed at restoration, if 7 meters of geo-tech continues to be substituted for actual geology.”

    • Kelly-
      You need a translator. What the hell do you mean by 7 meters of geo tech? I thought that was Astroturf.

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        OK, I’ll try again. CPRA once sent an engineer to speak to the Baton Rouge Geological Society (BRGS). In, I dunno, 120 slides?, he had TWO slides about subsurface conditions. Neither one went deeper than 7 meters down. All they were looking for was the cheapest source of easily transported material.

        It’s unfortunately quite common to see PEs writing about geo-tech (also known as “rock squeezing”) as though they were writing about geology. As in “things thousands of meters down which can – – and do – – impact the surface in meaningful ways.” I’ve already seen a comment about placing bets on how long the 13 miles or so of piped sand from shoals 30-40 miles south of Elmers Island will stay where it was placed.

        Too bad your site can’t accept pix. I’d send you some from my second guest speaker slot at the BRGS, most recently Feb 2017.

        • I agree that our deltaic sediment deficit can’t be reversed in the long run by dredging sand from Ship Shoal, although the late Shea Penland was a huge fan of the concept and the pics of 13 miles of shiny new beaches at Fourchon are mighty persuasive to the public.

          • Anonymous says:

            Fourchon $$$ is building the New Delta and the hands are out for a share. Who cares about people who will not be here to check sea level unless the Fountain of Youth is found. Admin will you be here?

          • Kelly Haggar says:

            Don’t want to be a pest, nor beat a dead horse, but the sediment deficit is far from the only problem with the CPRA’s planning assumptions. Depending upon which geologist one is hearing at any given time, it’s probably not even the largest CPRA problem. The most significant problem also varies with the exact spot being discussed. Some places are gaining land, and most likely will continue to do so over the next 50 years or more. Other places are essentially doomed, no matter what the CPRA does or doesn’t do. Moreover, sorting out which is which would take away from the “urgent, urgent blowing train whistle” policy chosen by the CPRA with the strong support of Gov JBE.

            “Elections have consequences,” and so on. Choices have been made, both nationally with Trump/Pruitt and locally with JBE/Bradberry, so our courses are set. I doubt La will be stopping to take geology into account in the next 3 years . . . but I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

            • Anonymous says:

              The projected USACE diversion permitting completion date is 2022. The current state and local elected officials may be replaced by that time. “Elections have consequences” may result in the replacement of Mr. Bradberry and others. Also, we could get a Cat 5 hurricane this year??

  4. Edward Bodker says:


    Much of what you mentioned regarding the Coastal Master Plan is true and on target, but are we up against arguments about interpretations of scientific data or arguments about attitudes, ideologies and legal rights? Can any meaningful engineering initiative succeed at restoration, if population growth, and ocean expansion continues? Does any of this matter, if we, don’t understand that the future of an abundant earth, with animals and humans, are sustainable only within an integral and mutually respectful relationship?

    Corporations have the rights of persons and more so with constitutional advantages that favor harmful corporate practice over community rights to democratically govern the protection of their local environment. If exploitative attitudes about using up the earth, about perpetual growth and economic expansion persist as dominate political realities, then attempts at coastal restoration will be of little consequence. There seems to be a growing “nature deficit disorder” that sets us apart from the natural world and views it as a utilitarian prize to be controlled. This seems to me to be a very destructive ideology and one that is guiding much of CPRA’s thinking about restoring wetlands.

    The 2017 MP starts out building an economic case for restoration that projects an 8.3 billion dollar cost savings per year, if their plans are implemented. Other than being a complete and wishful fantasy and a ploy for funding, the whole point that untempored exploitation being incompatible with sustainability is completely ignored. No responsibility to curb climate change, no recognition that nature has rights, no appreciation that humans and nature have to be in integral relationships at a deeper level than capitalism, none of this is found in the Coastal Master Plan.

    The MP can’t be tweaked because it’s a product of state government that reflects the values of never ending economic growth based on the exploitation of limited resources, a legal structure that’s not democratic, and by promoting and promising something it can’t deliver. Sure it sounds nice and many well-intended people believe and want government to save us, but it can only come from local communities and individuals who are willing to stop looking for hope in government and pie-in-the sky.

    But there are many positive and creative things that can be done. Just one of many examples of creative community responses can be seen by watching the interesting YouTube clip:
    “Thomas Linzey – Corporation v. Democracy”

    Ed B.

    • Thanks, Ed-
      Your provocative comments touch on philosophical subjects that go far beyond what the CPRA folks envision, as shown by the narrow scope of the master plan that’s presented in a vacuum in terms of its global context. I’ve been working on a post on our attempt to eco-engineer a local fix for what is clearly a symptom of the Anthropocene Epoch that began around 1800 with the coal-powered industrial revolution in England, governed by the principles of Capitalism.

      • Anonymous says:

        At the $2,000,000,000 cost of the two perversion 333,333,333 million cubic yards can be dredged from the Gulf of Mexico.
        Dredge/pump 24/7/365.

        • Anonymous-
          That’s fine as long as long as the cost of dredging and pumping stays at $6/cu yd…and if one isn’t concerned about adding thousands of tons of CO2 into the greenhouse gas-laden atmosphere. If it were up to me I’d use gravity to do the sediment pumping, thank you very much, just as nature intended.

          • Anonymous says:

            I would try dredging borrow from the river and discharging into the existing large syphons which are in Plaquemines Parish and the Carnarvon diversion. Or installing a large piping structure which would be placed on the bottom of the river extending into the inlet of the Carnarvon diversion. The inlet of the piping could be directed in an upstream position.
            We can’t afford to make a two billion $ error before exhausting all means at a cheaper cost.

      • Edward Bodker says:

        Thanks Len,

        I look forward to your Anthropocene post!


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