By Scott Madere
Can Louisiana’s coast be restored to the level that existed in our grandparents’ time? Is there enough sediment in the river to actually get the job done? What does our restoration strategy mean to our communities faced with an uncertain future?
These are just some of the questions that people have about coastal restoration that need direct answers. That’s why a group of scientists, engineers and restoration experts were convened two years ago to form the Science and Engineering Special Team (SEST). SEST is an all-star team of some of the best minds working on Louisiana’s coastal future, and its members shared their findings with the public at a conference earlier this week (Oct. 9-10) at LSU’s Energy, Coast and Environment building. Titled, “Answering Fundamental Questions about Mississippi River Delta Restoration,” the conference’s aim was to tackle questions frequently presented by skeptics and those new to coastal restoration, in terms that are easy to understand and share.
The Conference featured 21 presentations and one panel discussion covering everything from the history of the Mississippi Delta to the future of carbon markets in coastal restoration to the feasibility of large scale water and sediment diversions in our coastal restoration strategy. In the weeks ahead, we will be breaking out many of these topics for further examination right here on our CRCL.org blog. But let’s take a look at five concepts that made an immediate impression on our CRCL staff in attendance:
Can We Restore the Mississippi River Delta to its Natural, Healthy Pre-Colonization State?
One of the most interesting presentations of the conference was Richard Condrey’s look at the collected descriptions of the Louisiana coast by early European explorers. They described a lush delta teeming with wildlife, active in generating its geological features. These explorers described endless oyster beds and marsh, and powerful flows of fresh water that pushed mud into new, growing areas of the Delta. Sadly, there is no way to turn back the clock for the Mississippi River Delta. As NWF’s David Muth pointed out, there is currently no one alive who has witnessed the Delta in its natural, healthy state. Since the early 1800’s, human attempts to control the river and cut it off from its natural flooding and landbuilding role have undermined the overall health of our coast, to the point where all we can do now is create a new system in the Delta. This new system to restore the coast will be smaller in scale and possess a fraction of the natural landbuilding power of the Mississippi River. Our coast will never look the same as at any point in our lifetime or in the lifetimes of the generations that came before us.
Do We Have Enough Sediment in the Mississippi River to Restore the Delta?
The very short answer is no. In fact, the Mississippi River never actually has had enough sediment to continuously sustain the entire Delta coastline. Areas of the coast build, and areas erode. The process is ever-evolving. According to LSU’s Clint Willson, the River has enough sediment to maintain 20% of the delta. The big question for our coastal future is what within that 20% can be saved, and what will we target? Also, What will be the process for determining what we target?
Where Exactly does the Mouth of the Mississippi River Want to Be?
CRCL Board Member Paul Kemp, of the National Audubon Society presented an interesting concept we are eager to explore further. Kemp says the Mississippi River is retreating from its traditional mouth – the “Bird’s Foot” we are all familiar with – and filling in at the lower end. The result is that the River is trying to send water out through the eastern and the western sides of the Delta, in accordance with its natural role as a land builder. “The River actually wants to exit at Venice rather than at the end of Southwest Pass,” said Kemp. The SEST team was consistent in saying through multiple presentations that sediment diversions from the Mississippi River can build substantial land from river sediment, if they are properly designed and operated.
What is the True Value of the Mississippi River Delta?
The value of the Louisiana coast should not only be measured in terms of its significant economic impact, but also in terms of services that a natural, healthy system can provide. These services include things that we take for granted like drinking water, storm protection, habitat, resource (e.g. oil and gas) availability, pollination, recreation and more. Add to these ecosystem services the hard values of energy production, shipping, tourism, fishing and other economic activities, and the value of the Mississippi River Delta to the nation becomes immense and staggering to calculate. The value of the Delta is easily in excess of the $50 billion requested to fund the 2012 Coastal Master Plan for Louisiana. This is a message that needs to be communicated to the rest of the United States.
What is Happening to our Coastal Communities in the Face of a Changing Coast?
One of the important points driven home at the SEST conference was that changes on River and on the coast, whether man-made or natural, will require equal changes from our communities to adapt. SEST believes that threats to our coastal integrity like erosion, storms and man-made disasters like the 2010 BP oil spill are the factors which will force communities and families to move, not restoration activities. Restoration and mitigation must be coordinated to create compatible outcomes which will net positive returns for our communities. In addition, communities must take initiatives to adapt to a changing future, where floods and storm surge are common and no longer the exception in the Delta.
We will be taking a closer look at these questions and more on this blog in the days ahead. Stay tuned for updates, because we are eager to share with you the vast amount of information and ideas presented by this dynamic group of coastal researchers and advocates.