That Sinking Feeling
UMaine professor Joe Kelley wades into the debate about the future
of the Louisiana Delta
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
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
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
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
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
"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
by David Munson
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.