Opinion: Louisiana shuns science

Officials push sand berm plan to protect Gulf Coast from oil, as researchers caution against the move

By | August 5, 2010

Governor Bobby Jindal and the state's local government officials are ignoring the input of Gulf Coast researchers in pushing ahead with plans to build sand berms to protect the Louisiana coast from oil.
The first segment of sand berms along
the northern section of the (submerged)
Chandeleur Island chain photographed
from about the same location and altitude
on 25th June (top), 2nd July (middle),
and 7th July (bottom)
Image: Courtesy of Len Bahr
The latest blow to the highly stressed landscape of the Mississippi River Delta was the Macondo Deep Horizon oil well blowout on April 20 of this year. This explosion killed eleven men and, until being capped on July 15, released an estimated 60,000 barrels a day of crude petroleum a mile beneath the gulf surface and about twenty miles southeast of the closest land. Absence of plans for responding to such a massive oil release, combined with panic and desperation among coastal residents, created an irresistible political opportunity for action on the part of an ambitious governor and his cabinet. Jindal and local government leaders seized the emergency created by the blowout to propose a physical barrier "solution" -- to pile up defensive sand berms. The rationale for this action is to intercept oil in waters from the Gulf before it can contaminate the wetlands, the fish and wildlife they nourish, the human population centers they protect, and the delta sediments they hold in place. The coast of Louisiana frames North America's largest delta, which has been rapidly shrinking and sinking for a century. River channelization, flood levees, upriver dams and coastal oil and gas production continue to take their toll, with a net loss of about 2,300 square miles of inundated landscape per year. Reduction in the subaerial delta landscape has made southern Louisiana more and more vulnerable to hurricanes. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina crossed the hobbled coastal landscape to devastate New Orleans and coastal Mississippi, becoming the most damaging American hurricane of the past century. This storm washed away about 200 square miles of emergent wetlands, some of which have since recovered. About 80 miles of 6-foot-high sand berms are now under construction on the lower east and west sides of the Mississippi River. The total quantity of sand required to complete this project is said to be 56 million cubic yards -- the equivalent of 11.2 times the volume of the Superdome! Some of this sand is being dredged from the lower river channel, but most is being mined from shoals remaining from sunken barrier islands. Sand dredging deepens the subsurface profile and reduces hydraulic friction that formerly absorbed energy during approaching storm surges. An add-on to the sand barrier project was a proposal to partially fill a number of tidal passes -- places in the shoreline where ocean water makes its way inland on high tides -- using rocks. State officials justified these projects by dusting off longstanding but unfunded plans to nourish deltaic barrier shorelines on a massive scale, using sand dredged from the river and from 7,000 year-old offshore shoals. The prospect of charging BP for a scaled down version of this concept, sparked by dredging industry lobbyists, resulted in a back-of-the-envelope plan to create new linear sand features parallel to existing shorelines. The implied motive for these emergency sand and rock projects was presumably to restrict the wind-driven influx of oil-bearing gulf water by "shortening" the shoreline, using partial barricades to choke down pathways for the intrusion of floating oil and trap some oil on sand. Project proponents virtually ignored the extensive knowledge base of the Mississippi River delta in a rush to implement construction contracts quickly and with as little scientific scrutiny as possible. These proponents are apparently naive about basic hydrologic (tidal) processes. For example, they ignore the fact that reducing the cross sectional area by which tides currently operate will not change the volume of water exchanged during a tidal cycle; it will increase the current velocity (and scouring power) of the water. Reducing the influx of (oily) gulf water during flood tides would require one of two measures: 1) The tidal exchange volume could be reduced by elevating the bathymetry, raising the bottom profile into the intertidal zone by infilling estuarine shoals, using sediments pumped in on a massive scale. 2) Alternatively, tidal exchange could be eliminated by erecting a continuous floodwall to shut off all tidal exchange -- the so-called Dutch approach. "Solution 1" would be worthwhile but infeasible and "solution 2" would be destructive and infeasible. The governor's approach, trying to partially block the pathways for oil intrusion, is just foolish. Minor storms have already washed away portions of the first sand berm segments constructed and permits to infill tidal passes have been denied by the US Army Corps of Engineers. __linkurl:Len Bahr,;http://www.gulfbase.org/person/view.php?uid=lbahr PhD, is a former LSU marine sciences faculty member who served 18 years as a coastal policy adviser to Louisiana governors from Buddy Roemer to Bobby Jindal. He edits linkurl:LaCoastPost.;http://lacoastpost.com/blog/ His e-mail is leonardbahr@gmail.com.__
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Gulf scientists "on the sidelines";http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57504/
[23rd June 2010]*linkurl:New NSF grants for oil spill;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57441/
[19th May 2010]*linkurl:Scientists brace for oil impact;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57410/
[17th May 2010]


Avatar of: Cheryl Scott

Cheryl Scott

Posts: 10

August 5, 2010

They won't learn until they've spent money and actually seen it wasted -- like those who built the row of jetties sticking out from Westhampton, NY to "protect" the shoreline (and its numerous beachside mansions) from erosion. The folks who make these decisions don't believe what researchers say; they will only believe their eyes, and then (if the past is prologue) only after the damage done is so severe that it can't be denied. Then they'll probably blame the researchers who tried to warn them in the first place...
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

August 5, 2010

Nothing new. Jindal is a vocal creationist. Louisiana and Kentucky share the distinction of being the only two states in the country to officially sanction the teaching of creationism in public school science classes.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 7

August 5, 2010

Scientists were willing to proffer their opinions when the officials came up with a plan, but calling what the Governor and others called for "an irresistible political opportunity for action on the part of an ambitious governor and his cabinet" is simply not fair. As stated by the author earlier in the same paragraph, there was NO plan. \n\nSomeone had to move. \n\nThe point is that these people were ready to take action when no one else was getting the job done. If you don't agree with what was being called for, that is fine and you are welcome to say so. But we need to lay off the pejorative language about those who were trying to find a solution to a serious problem that no one had faced before. (At least they weren't trying to protect the walrus population by calling a person who had been dead for 5 years!) \n\n
Avatar of: Matthew Grossman

Matthew Grossman

Posts: 27

August 5, 2010

Those who have no belief/respect for science will not listen to science. Ignorance is bliss temporarily, don't confuse me with the facts. \n\nYet there is one scientist that they will have little choice but to listen to. Mother Nature.
Avatar of: Alan McCright

Alan McCright

Posts: 1

August 5, 2010

"Governor Bobby Jindal and the state's local government officials are ignoring the input of Gulf Coast researchers in pushing ahead with plans to build sand berms to protect the Louisiana coast from oil."\n\nWho are these researchers you speak of, Mr. Bahr, and how many? Who disagrees with them and you? And how many? Is yours a minority or majority opinion?\n\nThe author comes across such that it appears that his way is the only way--that he is right and everyone else is wrong. Maybe that is true and maybe it isn't. His approach here is not very scientific and the entire piece seems much more like a political attack than anything else.\n\nI would like to see a rational, scientific debate on this issue rather than the anti-Jindal rant thus presented.\n\nThe fact that he used to work for Jindal makes me suspicious of his motives given his statements.\n\nWere other researchers consulted? What did they have to say? Did Jindal's administration come up with this idea on their own, or was it the result of advice given by other researchers who are in disagreement with Bahr? Well, Bahr doesn't say.\n\nWhere is the raw data, sir? Your empirical evidence to back up your claims?
Avatar of: john toeppen

john toeppen

Posts: 52

August 5, 2010

King Canute the Great, the legend says, seated on his throne on the seashore, waves lapping round his feet. Canute had learned that his flattering courtiers claimed he was "So great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back". Now Canute was not only a religious man, but also a clever politician. He knew his limitations - even if his courtiers did not - so he had his throne carried to the seashore and sat on it as the tide came in, commanding the waves to advance no further. When they didn't, he had made his point that, though the deeds of kings might appear 'great' in the minds of men, they were as nothing in the face of God's power.\nhttp://www.viking.no/e/people/e-knud.htm\n\nWisdom seems to be more difficult to find in rulers these days.....\n
Avatar of: Bob Grant

Bob Grant

Posts: 22

August 6, 2010

This comment was posted by Bob Grant on behalf of Len Bahr:\n\n"Alan McWright accused me of bias and sour grapes against my former employer Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with respect to my claim that Louisiana state officials have ignored coastal scientists in responding to the Deep Horizon well blowout. Mr. McWright challenged me to back up my claim with the names of specific scientists whose opinions on coastal engineering have been dismissed. \n\nIn response I call his attention to a recent letter by Western Carolina University Professor Robert S. Young, and signed by 23 coastal scientists. This letter was sent to Admiral Thad Allen, President Obama's point person on the oil disaster, and posted in LaCoastPost.com.\n\nLen Bahr, Ph.D."
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 9, 2010

http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/assets/2010/07/21/Thad%20Allen%20Letter%20Open%20Letter.pdf\n\nPlease email for an updated list of signatories:\nBrian Blanton, PhD, Renaissance Computing Institute, UNC Chapel Hill\nDavid M. Bush, PhD, PG, University of West Georgia\nAndrew Coburn, Associate Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines\nAndrew Cooper, PhD, University of Ulster\nGeorge Crozier, PhD, Executive Director, Dauphin Island Sea Lab\nJoseph Donoghue, PhD, Florida State University\nRoy Dokka, PhD, Fruehan Professor of Engineering, Louisiana State University\nCharles H. Fletcher, PhD, University of Hawaii\nChester W. Jackson, PhD, Georgia Southern University\nJoseph Kelley, PhD, University of Maine\nMark Merchant, PhD, Director of Research, Louisiana Environmental Research\nCenter, McNeese State University\nWilliam J. Neal, PhD, Grand Valley State University\nAndy Nyman, PhD, Louisiana State University\nRandall W. Parkinson, PhD, PG, RWParkinson Consulting, Inc\nOrrin H. Pilkey, PhD, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus, Duke University\nDenise J. Reed, PhD, Director of Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences,\nUniversity of New Orleans\nPeter Ruggiero, PhD, Oregon State University\nArthur Trembanis, PhD, University of Delaware\nJ.P. Walsh, PhD, East Carolina University\nHarry Dallon Weathers, PhD, University of New Orleans\n\nThe views expressed in this letter should not be interpreted to reflect the views or\nofficial endorsement of the institutions employing the signatories.\n\n\n

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