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1st summer post, two issues: one sad one glad

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Savoring Father's Day brunch in the Bywater NOLA with my daughter Emilie

Savoring a birthday/father's day brunch in the Bywater (NOLA) with my daughter Emilie and her Mom, Carolyn Leftwich who "iphoned" the photo.

Now that my combo birthday/father’s day has signaled the beginning of summer I’m spotlighting two reports. Both of them have already been listed in Coastal Scuttlebutt but email correspondents keep sending them to me, so they obviously justify more emphasis.

The first is a new government document on climate change (cc) that further seals the case and puts cc deniers in an even less plausible light. Having been highly critical of government coastal reports recently, I’m happy to endorse this one, even though it represents bad news for Louisiana.

The second is truly a heart warming story on levee destruction by Cornelia Dean in the June 20 NY Times. This piece involves the northern portion of the Louisiana coastal zone (up around Monroe) where 25 square miles of drained bottomland is being converted back to its original status as part of the Ouachita River floodplain.

First the climate change report.report_cover_lrg Here are the ten bullets listed under the executive summary:

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced. Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human- induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow. Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow. 

3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase. Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change. 

4. Climate change will stress water resources. Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged. Many crops show positive responses to elevated carbon dioxide and low levels of warming, but higher levels of warming often negatively affect growth and yields. Increased pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production. 

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge. Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected. 

7. Risks to human health will increase. Harmful health impacts of climate change are related to increasing heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Reduced cold stress provides some benefits. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts. 

8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses. Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone. 

9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems. There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected.

10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today. The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.

Now the good news. Cornelia Dean, who has written numerous technical articles on coastal issues and climate change, described a precedent setting levee busting project that reverses a long term trend of government subsidized destructive and unsustainable projects to drain floodplains on land that is only marginal for row crops. She describes a $4 million project overseen by brothers Kelby and Keith Ouchley, the former retired as director of the Upper Ouachita Wildlife Refuge and the latter currently head of Louisiana operations for The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

This project, a joint undertaking of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and TNC, involves degrading a 17 mile levee system constructed in the 1960′s to “reclaim” a 25 square mile area known as Mollicy Farms. The land is being restored to its natural condition in which spring floods will inundate, nourish and restore a huge piece of bottomland hardwood habitat.  The area will become part of an expanded Upper Ouachita Wildlife Refuge.

Here are some quotes from her article:

Mollicy Farms on left, naturally flooded bottomland on right (NY Times photo)

A project is under way to restore Mollicy Farms, on the left, to a form that will make it look more like the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, on the right. (photo by Steve Haase, TNC)

…there is a growing awareness that Louisiana’s levees have exacted a huge environmental cost. Inland, cypress forests and wetlands crucial for migrating waterfowl have vanished; in southern Louisiana, coastal marshes deprived of regular infusions of sediment-rich river water have yielded by the mile to an encroaching Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists have suggested opening levees south of New Orleans so the Mississippi River can flow normally into the swamps.

The workers replanted cypress and tupelo in low areas, then oaks and green ash, and then sweetgum and pecans — “life-sustaining, system-supporting diversity,” as Kelby Ouchley called it in an essay.

Still, the brothers felt dissatisfied. A few years ago, Keith Ouchley said, “I was standing on the giant levees with my brother and I said, ‘Well, there is one thing missing here. The big challenge is restoring this floodplain.’ ”

The Nature Conservancy has already taken part in levee-busting projects on Klamath Lake in Oregon and the Emiquon Preserve on the Illinois River in Illinois to help restore wetlands. But the Ouachita project is far larger, people involved say, both in its size — roughly 25 square miles — and the effort required to remove each levee, roughly 30 feet high and 120 feet wide at the base.

The plan, designed by hydrology experts whose work was financed in part by $250,000 from the Nature Conservancy, was originally to use bulldozers to chew away at the levees in five places and then wait for spring floods to level them gradually, said George Chandler, the project leader for Fish and Wildlife Service projects in North Louisiana.

The effort was to have begun last fall, he said, but heavy rains forced a delay until May, when unusual rains delayed it again. On May 23, the swollen Ouachita seized the initiative, breaking the levee and flooding the Mollicy acreage.

“We expect that next fall or winter whenever the river comes back up we will have normal flows of water that will return to these bottomlands out there,” Mr. Chandler said. “It will rise and fall with the rhythm of the river.”

…it is theoretically possible that opening the levees could alter water flow enough to force the river into a new course. On the other hand, Keith Ouchley says, planners hope the project will reduce flood threats downstream “by providing more storage capacity in the river’s flood plain, like it normally would have.”

Around 1995 I flew south along the Mississippi River from Memphis to Baton Rouge on a clear day in December. I gazed out the window at thousands of parcels of land similar to Mollicy Farms, dreaming about how much sense it would make to let the river back into its historic floodplain. My trip was shortly after the ’93 floods in the midwest that could have been avoided with such relief valves.

At that time this kind of project was a pipedream. Maybe Dylan was right; maybe times they are a changing. Rumor has it that the USFWS and TNC have been nominated for a Gulf Guardian Award through the Gulf of Mexico Program because of the Mollicy Farms project. Sounds very appropriate to me.

Len Bahr

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  1. I agree with your ideas.Thanks for your sharing.

  2. Decent publish and a terrific read. You have raised several legitimate points. Fantastic work.

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  7. The Nature Conservancy also runs / leases experimental "sustainable" trawling operations in California, out of the set of leases they bought to keep traditional trawlers from operating. god forbid someone try to produce food sustainably! It's sad that a private corporation has to do what the public institutions should be doing, but we desperately need this kind of research/innovation in our food production system.

  8. Heidihoe says:

    I gather that The Nature Conservancy is quite "special," especially with respect to CATTLE ranching…..

    On the one hand, they "encourage" the real ranchers to git outta ranchin, because cows is bad…. BUT meanwhiles, its plumb OK for them and their "pardnuhs" to raise "conservation beef" on "legendary western landscapes of ecological significance:"

    http://www.conservationbeef.org/

    An article on the Klamath Basin; the Klamath was mentioned in the original article's post above….

    http://www.rangemagazine.com/features/winter-08/w

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