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January / February 2006 Cover

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That Sinking Feeling


That Sinking Feeling
UMaine professor Joe Kelley wades into the debate about the future of the Louisiana Delta


Kelley's call on Katrina
While his involvement in the National Academy of Science's review of Louisiana's coastal improvement plan did not include an evaluation of the state's levees, dikes or other storm-protection measures, Joe Kelley did write the book on the Louisiana coastline.

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No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, and members of the Louisiana government are no exception. In pursuit of a decidedly optimistic vision of the future for that vast expanse of mud, sand and cord grass that is the Mississippi River Delta, the Louisiana government set into motion an ambitious plan to "restore" the eroding Louisiana coastline, setting its sights on a hefty $14 billion in federal support. And that was before Hurricane Katrina.

However, in order to secure that level of funding, the Pelican State's application would have to be more than ambitious. It would have to be convincing.

That's where Joe Kelley comes in.

World-renowned for his expertise in marine and coastal geology, and equally famous for his uncompromising approach to defending coastal land, the University of Maine marine geology professor was asked to participate in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review of Louisiana's funding proposal. Louisiana officials were hoping for a thumbs-up from NAS's Ocean Studies Board that would strengthen their bargaining position with the feds.

What they got was something else entirely.

In their Nov. 9 report, Kelley and his colleagues, a best-of-the-best assemblage of economists, engineers and other specialists who convened beginning in 2004, determined that the bad news is exactly what the people of Louisiana need to hear, and that a true restoration of Louisiana's coast is the stuff of campaign speeches and fairy tales.

"The report seems critical of Louisiana's plan, but it's critical in a constructive way," says Kelley. "I think the biggest take-home message from our report is that the Louisiana government needs to be honest with the people of Louisiana about the future of the coast."

Kelley is no stranger to Louisiana coastal concerns. He was a member of the University of New Orleans faculty from 1979–82. In 1984, he and Alice Kelley, his wife, wrote Living with the Louisiana Shore, a reaction to what he saw as the costly and destructive efforts to stabilize a shoreline ravaged by reckless development in the face of the rising sea.

In its evaluation of the project put forth by the Louisiana government and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the NAS committee on which Kelley served raised serious concerns regarding the state's methods for selecting which coastal protection initiatives to pursue, as well as the overall scope of the coastal management plan. The panel also questioned the Louisiana government's ability to present a clear and unbiased view of those processes to the public.

The rising waters and raging winds of Katrina only served to underscore what the panel of experts determined even before the hurricane hit.
"Overall, the projects that were being proposed just don't go far enough. The people of Louisiana need to know that you can't restore the delta — it's too big, too expensive and just too far gone. They can bring in money to restore some select places, but they would have to abandon some places, too," says Kelley, who, as Maine's longtime marine geologist at the Maine Geological Survey, was a guiding force behind the establishment of the most environmentally protective coastal management regulations in the nation.

Maine's Sand Dune Law governing coastal development, which Kelley helped to strengthen and expand in the late 1980s, is considered a model for other states.

Kelley is critical of Louisiana's public relations efforts regarding proposed coastal improvement projects, noting that public information sessions would be better attended if the true implications of coastal erosion and coastal protection projects were known. Too often, he says, only a handful of residents show up because the projects, as presented, don't mean anything to them.

"If (the state) had said ‘we're considering abandoning this town,' you can bet people would have shown up," Kelley says.

The shortfalls that the NAS committee discovered were not all due to procedural problems at the state level. Federal funding mandates and time constraints fostered their own brand of shortsighted policymaking. What began as a comprehensive, albeit somewhat misguided, coastal improvement plan quickly became a scaled-down hit list of short-term, doable projects that would meet federal criteria.

Those criteria, which included such innovation-crushing mandates as "all projects must be completed within five years" and "all projects must have been done in Louisiana before," clipped the wings of Louisiana's original $14 billion proposal midway through NAS's evaluation process, shifting the focus toward a quick-fix package that could be achieved with no more than $2 billion in federal funding.

While a lack of federal support helped to steer the process back toward a Band-Aid approach to coastal protection, bad choices are bad choices, and the project selection criteria Louisiana used created a process that was more like a game of musical chairs than a scientifically defendable procedure. According to Kelley, thousands of individual projects were lumped together into a dozen or so ambiguous groups. Each project, and thus each group, was churned through a dizzying matrix of scoring formulas to determine their economic viability. When the music stopped, the winning groups were hoisted into the top spots for funding.

"Projects were given a certain value based on formulas that would state something like ‘two-and-one-half miles of salt marsh provides a reduction in storm surge by one foot.' Quantified by what?" Kelley says. "The selection process was just not transparent, and when this kind of money is involved, it ought to be."

Procedural shortcomings in the selection process were illustrated in frightening detail by one of the most highly visible proposals to make the cut: the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). Unpopular with residents and extremely expensive to maintain, MRGO was just the kind of project that should have been culled, Kelley says.

"They were essentially looking for more than $200 million to line MRGO with rocks," says Kelley with frustration. "It served something like one boat a day. It laid waste to enormous amounts of land. It caused environmental damage and was thought to be a superhighway for storm surge leading into the heart of the city. It empties into the industrial canal where a levee breach happened as a result of Katrina."

As Controversial as the MRGO project is, the recommendation set forth by NAS promises to stir things up even more. Kelley proposed a "third delta" scenario that NAS committee members, and many other scientists, believe could strengthen and expand the Mississippi Delta to the west.

"Our thought was to divert the river and create a new, large delta south of New Orleans," says Kelley. Running his finger over a satellite image of the region, Kelley pointed out a huge expanse of soggy wetland surrounding the river's existing outlet known as the Birdsfoot Delta.

"It's been called a ‘third delta,' but that isn't exactly accurate because the Birdsfoot Delta would be abandoned and would eventually disappear. It would be controversial, but we need to think big here."

In addition to contributing to the historical and geological information included in the NAS report, Kelley also helped to create an entire section that describes what an ideal river delta might look like. Kelley hopes the report will help to inspire a frank and realistic discussion about the future of Louisiana's coast at all levels.

"They need to create a map that shows the new places where money will go and those areas that will have to be abandoned," Kelley says. "Restoring the delta to create something like what was there in the past is just not going to happen. The government needs to come clean about the fact that we cannot sustain the delta as we know it."

Kelley enthusiastically supports the increased funding for research that was part of Louisiana's plan, and advocates methods for distributing research funds that encourage new, out-of-the box thinking. It will take the intellectual resources of the nation to arrive at meaningful solutions to the problems faced on Louisiana's coast, he says.

"Some have argued that most of the land loss in the delta occurred as the result of dredging and canals built by the oil industry. I think we need to take a hard look at the oil industry's role and how industry could contribute to a solution," says Kelley.

"There's also the larger question of whether the whole project is in the national interest. Houston and Mobile could pick up the oil and gas slack in a heartbeat, and the changes may be a benefit to the fisheries. As a group, we had trouble deciding if the restoration projects were even in the nation's economic interests."

Kelley's final recommendation was for the creation of a blue-ribbon panel that could examine the social, economic and geological realities of the Louisiana coast, and develop a working plan for the future.

"The scale of what has been considered isn't big enough to really do anything," says Kelley. "We need a long-term plan for people to learn to live with the forces at work here.

"There are certainly things that can be done to protect some of what we have, but I'll say it again: people don't build deltas. Rivers build deltas."

Kelley's call on Katrina

While his involvement in the National Academy of Science's review of Louisiana's coastal improvement plan did not include an evaluation of the state's levees, dikes or other storm-protection measures, Joe Kelley did write the book on the Louisiana coastline (Living With the Louisiana Coast, 1984), making him something of an expert on the gulf state's ability to withstand hurricanes and other storms. His verdict on Katrina? There is little any city can do in the face of a major hurricane.

"Any city that gets a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane is going to be destroyed, especially New Orleans because it's so low," says Kelley. "Even if they spent the money, it doesn't matter if it's tomorrow, next week, or 50 years from now: with a Category 5 hurricane, it wouldn't matter."

by David Munson
January-February, 2006

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