Archive for Reports


IPCC report examines climate change’s effects on Mississippi River Delta and strategies for adaptation

August 5, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Community Resiliency, Economics, Hurricanes, Job Creation, Reports

By Keenan Orfalea, Communications Intern, Environmental Defense Fund

“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” – President John F. Kennedy

The Mississippi River Delta – one of the largest and most productive wetland ecosystems in North America – is teeming with life, and this rich bounty has supported the development of unique cultures and traditions, alongside industry. At the same time, Louisiana’s fragile coastal wetland ecosystems are facing collapse. Today, the region also faces serious threats from global climate change, combined with other manmade impacts. Climate impacts could devastate Gulf fisheries, submerge critical infrastructure like Port Fourchon and imperil cities such as New Orleans. These outcomes are not inevitable, though, if meaningful action is taken.

Coastal wetlands are the first line of defense against climate change impacts such as storm surge. Unfortunately, the Mississippi River Delta has been losing wetlands at an alarming rate as a result of unsustainable river and coastal management practices. Since 1932, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land, and every hour, an area of land the size of a football field turns into open water.

While this gradual process may go unnoticed from day to day, the consequences became clear through the devastation of natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Intact coastal wetlands could have protected against the force of these storms, because they have the potential to buffer storm surge. For communities that lie behind natural wetland barriers, restoring such ecosystems will increase communities’ resiliency and ability to thrive in the face of climate change.

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A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focused on the observed and predicted effects of climate change as well as adaptation strategies. The report found strong evidence of variation in key environmental indicators over the past two decades and predicts that this variation is likely to continue into the future, generating increasingly severe effects over time. The report also explores what can be done to confront these new challenges and protect against the most extreme impacts.

For vulnerable, low lying areas like southern Louisiana, any effective adaptation plan will have to utilize multiple strategies simultaneously. Coastal wetland restoration will be one of the most important and cost effective tools for adapting to climate change.

There are costs associated with any restoration program, but strategic investment could produce economic gains for the entire Mississippi River Delta region. According to an analysis by The Center for American Progress and Oxfam America, long-term investment in ecosystem services returned $15 in value for every $1 spent. The same study found that an average of 17 jobs were created per $1 million in spending on ecosystem services, compared to only 9 jobs created from the same investment in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Adaptive coastal planning delivers further benefits by mitigating potential losses from storm damage and sea level rise. Taken together, the gains in human safety and economic stimulus stemming from adaptive planning far exceed the costs of any coastal restoration program. Embarking on this course of action will not only ensure the long-term sustainability of the Mississippi River Delta and its communities, but it could also lay the foundations for future economic development.

Climate change is a global problem, but the earliest and most severe developments will be felt in areas that are most exposed, like the low-lying and disappearing Mississippi River Delta. While mitigating the future impacts of climate change will require an international effort, adaptation must take place on the regional and local levels. Louisiana’s most pressing threats stem from its vanishing coastline. In order to meet the challenges of the future, policymakers and citizens must take immediate action in order to reverse this land loss crisis, because comfortable inaction is not an option.

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Mississippi River carries enough sand to build new land for at least 600 years, new study suggests

April 28, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Diversions, Reports, Restoration Projects, Science

By Alisha A. Renfro, Ph.D., National Wildlife Federation

As spring weather warms the Midwest, snow melts and drains from 31 states into the Mississippi River. In south Louisiana, the mighty Mississippi River is nearing its peak flow of nearly 900,000 cubic feet of water per second. Rolling down the river with the water is mud and sand, which are essential to building wetlands in the disappearing Mississippi River Delta.

Mississippi River Basin modified from nps.gov

Every hour in Louisiana, a football field of land becomes open water. This land loss crisis is caused in part by levees built for flood protection and navigation which severed the connection between the delta and the river, almost completely halting the land-building processes that once created this iconic landscape.

Sediment diversions are large-scale restoration projects that move sand and mud from the river through the levees into nearby wetlands during high river flows – such as this year’s spring high water flow – to restart the land-building process and help sustain existing wetlands. One important question to understand the full land-building potential of these projects is: Is the Mississippi River a long-term, sustainable source of mud and sand?

A recent Nature Geoscience paper by Jeffrey Nittrouer, Ph.D. of River University and Enrica Viparelli, Ph.D. of the University of South Carolina, “Sand as a stable and sustainable resource for nourishing the Mississippi River delta,” suggests that while the amount of mud carried by the Mississippi River has decreased since the 1970s, the sand it carries has remained steady and may do so for the next 600 years.

The Missouri River is an important source of sediment to the Mississippi, historically supplying about one-half of the total sediment moving down the Mississippi River. However, dams built in the 1950s along the Missouri have been hypothesized as the cause of the large reduction in the amount of total sediment (mud plus sand) that makes its way down to the Mississippi.

In this study, Nittrouer and Viparelli look at changes in the mud and sand carried by the river over a year since the 1970s and found that while the amount of mud that makes it to Tarbert Landing, Miss. (306 miles above the Bird’s Foot delta) has decreased over time, the amount of sand has been consistent. They point out that the likely source of sand is material that is being eroded out of the river channel.

Nittrouer and Enrica applied a model to simulate the response of a sudden reduction in sediment supply that likely occurred with dam construction along the Missouri River in the 1950s. The model indicates that erosion of sand in the river channel between Cairo, Ill. and Vicksburg, Miss. keeps the amount of sand available at Tarbert Landing, Miss. steady for the next 600 years.  

Sand and mud are both needed to restore the Mississippi River Delta. Sand, which is 20 percent of the sediment carried by the river, is essential for building new platforms that can support marsh vegetation. Mud, which makes up the other 80 percent, is necessary for maintaining and increasing the resiliency of existing marsh to sea level rise and storm events.

This study suggests that there is a steady supply of sand to the lowermost part of the Mississippi River that can be put to work by constructing and using sediment diversions to mimic nature to build new land, help sustain existing wetlands and begin the restoration of the Mississippi River Delta. This is positive news for large-scale coastal restoration efforts. 

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Study shows how coastal habitats help provide protection from storms, sea level rise

September 3, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Community Resiliency, Hurricanes, Reports, Restoration Projects, Science

By Alisha Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

Coastal communities throughout the U.S. are increasingly threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. The conventional approach for protecting people and property along the coast has relied on engineering solutions such as levees, seawalls and bulkheads, which “harden” shorelines. However, not only can these structures be expensive to build and difficult to maintain, but in some cases, they can also increase erosion, impair the recreational uses of the area and reduce water quality.

In recent years, efforts to protect coastal communities have been expanded to recognize restoration and conservation of coastal habitats as ways to help buffer coastlines from waves and storm surge. In a study recently published in Nature, “Coastal habitats shield people and property from sea-level rise and storms,” researchers assessed the risk reduction that natural habitats provide to vulnerable people and property and found that loss of the ecosystems that currently exist will result in greater damage to people and property.

Louisiana barrier island. Credit: NOAA.

Different types of coastal habitat and shoreline offer varying levels of protection to coastal communities depending on their morphology and previously observed ability to offer protection from erosion and flooding. For example, in this study, coastal forests and high cliff shorelines were classified as providing a higher level of protection when compared to marsh and oyster reef habitat, with barrier beach shorelines and areas with no habitat offering the lowest level of protection.

To provide a nationwide view of the risk reduction that could be provided by natural coastal habitat, the researchers in this study compiled a coastal habitat map for the U.S. and compared model runs with and without the habitats under present-day and future sea level scenarios. Their modeling results indicated that, today, 16 percent of the U.S. coastline is classified as a “high hazard” area. When the same conditions were modeled without the presence of protective coastal habitats, the results suggested the extent of U.S. coastline that would be considered vulnerable to storms and sea level rise would double.

Compared to the West Coast, the low-relief Gulf and eastern coasts of the U.S. are more vulnerable to both sea level rise and storms. In order to better protect these vulnerable regions, the authors of this study suggested that large expanses of coastal forests and wetlands, oyster and coral reefs, dunes and sea grass beds are critical.

Recently, some coastal protection plans have begun incorporating conservation and restoration of coastal habitat alongside traditional physical structures. Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan is an excellent example of a plan that acknowledges not only the value that coastal habitats have for the fish and wildlife of the area, but it also examines how to combine conservation and restoration of these habitats with traditional engineering strategies to enhance protection for the millions of people that call coastal Louisiana home.

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A review of the RESTORE Council's Initial Comprehensive Plan

August 27, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in BP Oil Disaster, Clean Water Act, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, Reports, Restoration Projects, RESTORE Act

By Whit Remer and Elizabeth Weiner, Environmental Defense Fund

Last week, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council released the “Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy” for implementing parts of the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act, which was enacted into law in 2012 in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council was created by the RESTORE Act and comprises officials from five Gulf Coast states and six federal agencies.

The RESTORE Act requires the Council to develop and maintain a comprehensive plan for restoring the Gulf Coast, and the release of the Initial Comprehensive Plan is a milestone in that process. Throughout the last year, the Council solicited input from the public on various components of the Initial Comprehensive Plan. The Plan ultimately included goals and objectives and reiterated the restoration priorities that were central in the RESTORE Act.

Tar balls of weathered oil wash ashore Bon Secour NWR June 4, 2010. Photo by Lillian Falco, USFWS Public domain photo.

The Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign provided vital input to the Council, emphasizing adherence to statutory language, use of the best-available science and the central role that the delta plays in comprehensive, Gulf-wide restoration. While the Plan sketches a blueprint for Gulf Coast restoration, the next steps toward developing a project and program list are critical to the Plan’s success. Louisiana’s fragile wetlands continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Sediment diversions, marsh creation and barrier island restoration are all methods being proposed to stem the loss of land and provide storm protection and habitat along the coast. We will continue to encourage the Council to use the best-available science to develop a project and program list, including these methods, and put restoration dollars to work as soon as possible.

In the Initial Comprehensive Plan, the Council provided several reasons for not including a project and program list. The Department of Treasury is required by the RESTORE Act to issue regulations to guide disbursement of funding to states and allocation of funding by the Council. These regulations are currently held up for review at the Office of Management and Budget. Once the regulations are approved, the Council will have more direction on how to spend and allocate restoration dollars.

However, the Council will need more funding in the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Trust Fund to carry out its priority projects and programs list, once complete. Thirty percent of the total funding in this Trust Fund will be used for these priority projects and programs. Transocean, one of the responsible parties, has already settled their Clean Water Act fines totaling $1 billion, which will result in $800 million in the Trust Fund by January 3, 2015. The Trust Fund will receive additional funding from Clean Water Act fines assessed against BP and other responsible parties resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Fines against BP and other oil companies involved in spill have yet to be determined by a federal judge in New Orleans. The second phase of the trial to determine those fines is set for September 30, but the judgment could take months to issue, with the chance an appeal would follow.

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What is wildlife tourism?

August 23, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in BP Oil Disaster, Job Creation, Reports, Wildlife tourism

This is the first in a series of posts about wildlife tourism and the Gulf Coast economy.

By Will Lindsey and Rachel Schott, Environmental Defense Fund

A new economic report by Datu Research LLC studied the important contribution that wildlife tourism provides to the economic vitality of 53 coastal counties and parishes across the Gulf Coast states. Wildlife tourism, which includes wildlife watching, recreational fishing and hunting, generates $19 billion per year in revenue for the Gulf Coast. Renowned for its unique culture and outdoor opportunities, the Gulf Coast environment provides world-class recreational activities for millions of tourists every year.

According to the report, “Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy,” more than 20 million people participate in these activities across the five Gulf Coast states every year. The study found that after taking into account businesses and economic sectors that rely on wildlife tourists, the industry produces more than $19 billion per year in revenue. This income is generated by a variety of industries, including guide and outfitter business as well as the lodging and restaurant establishments that provide services to wildlife tourists traveling to the area.

The study demonstrates that a healthy Gulf Coast is not only an important ecological resource for the region but is also a vital economic resource, providing more than $5.3 billion in tax revenues annually and numerous employment opportunities throughout the region. From sunbathing on the beaches of Alabama and Florida to fishing and hunting in Louisiana and Texas, tourists find enjoyment in the natural beauty of the Gulf Coast.

Yet this critically important wildlife recreation sector will continued to be threatened unless policy makers take bold steps to protect our eroding and degraded coastlines. “It is important that we take care of our most valuable natural assets,” said Mark Romig, President of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, at a press conference in New Orleans for the release of the report. “We need coastal restoration to protect our economic base… It’s right for the environment, right for business, right for people, and right for jobs.”

Knowing the economic impact of wildlife tourism on the Gulf Coast region makes coastal restoration even more essential and timely. Many people and businesses rely on the resources provided by the Mississippi River Delta and Gulf Coast, and the economic viability of the area can be secured by ensuring the resiliency of this diverse, yet fragile, region for decades to come.

Investing in coastal restoration, as through the RESTORE Act and other monies stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, will help the Gulf Coast ecosystem as well as the tourism industry which depends on a healthy Gulf.

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Joint Ocean Commission Initiative report underscores importance of coastal restoration

August 7, 2013 | Posted by Rachel Schott in Community Resiliency, Economics, Federal Policy, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, Latest News, Reports, RESTORE Act, Science

By Rachel Schott, Environmental Defense Fund

In June, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a bipartisan 16-member council representing diverse ocean interests, released a new report, “Charting the Course: Securing the Future of America’s Oceans.” The report outlines important ocean reform and coastal restoration recommendations for Congress and the Obama Administration. Being an “ocean nation,” the health of the U.S. economy is closely tied to health of its oceans. For Gulf Coast residents, this specifically means the Gulf of Mexico. The report has implications for both the health the Gulf Coast environment and the economies that rely on it.

“Our oceans and coasts are vital to our nation’s economy and security, as well as to the health and quality of life of its citizens,” states the Joint Initiative in the report. No one understands this better than Louisiana and Gulf Coast residents. After the 2010 oil disaster, in 2012, Congress took an important step toward securing the future health and vitality of the region when it passed the RESTORE Act – legislation that dedicates fines from the Gulf oil disaster to the Gulf Coast states for restoration. However, project selection and final authorization of funds has yet to be determined.

The report makes recommendations that advocate for restoring the coast’s natural coastline, strengthening its ability to protect communities from storms and rebuilding natural habitats and ecosystems. These recommendations offer a valid perspective for allocating available RESTORE Act funding and BP oil spill penalties to coastal restoration projects.

In its report, the council – consisting of national, state, and local leaders from diverse government agencies, academic institutions and industries – provided a set of science-based policy recommendations that enhance the long-term security and economic priorities of the nation’s coast. Two actions that would directly affect the Mississippi River Delta and coastal Louisiana are as follows:

  • “Enhance the resiliency of coastal communities and ocean ecosystems to dramatic changes underway in our oceans and on our coasts.”
  • “Support state and regional ocean and coastal priorities.”

As hurricanes and super storms become more common, it will become vital that policymakers implement programs that increase coastal resiliency. National decision makers must understand the underlying issues and local community priorities to effectively select and implement coastal restoration projects.

As the report underlines, building stronger and more resilient coastlines benefits not just those living near the coast, but the entire nation that depends on healthy coasts and oceans. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council has an unprecedented opportunity to allocate RESTORE Act funds to implementing coastal restoration projects and becoming an integral part of rebuilding the Mississippi River Delta and Gulf Coast and the economies that depend on a healthy Gulf Coast.

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Gulf Tourism Depends on a Healthy Gulf

July 9, 2013 | Posted by Rachel Schott in Economy, Hunting and Fishing, Latest News, Media Resources, Reports, Seafood, Wildlife, Wildlife tourism

PRESS RELEASE

Contacts:
Molly Moore, Sanderson Strategies Group, 202.682.3700, molly@sandersonstrategies.com
Elizabeth Skree, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, eskree@edf.org

Gulf Tourism Depends on a Healthy Gulf

New report shows wildlife tourism is central to Gulf Coast economy

(New Orleans—July 9, 2013) The coastal environment of the Gulf of Mexico supports a $19 billion annual wildlife tourism industry that is highly dependent on critical investments in coastal environmental restoration, according to a survey released today by Datu Research LLC.

Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy” concludes that wildlife tourism is extremely valuable to the Gulf Coast economy and relies heavily on the health of the endangered Gulf Coast ecosystem in the five states of Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. Wildlife tourism includes recreational fishing, hunting and wildlife watching.

Key findings of the report show that wildlife tourism:

  • Generates more than $19 billion in annual spending.
  • Attracts 20 million participants annually across the five Gulf Coast states.
  • Delivers $5.3 billion annually in federal, state and tax revenues.

The study also found tourism jobs can account for 20-36 percent of all private jobs in coastal counties and parishes that are particularly dependent on wildlife activities. Those 53 counties and parishes have more than 25,000 tourism-related businesses and nearly 500,000 associated jobs.

The study reported that all forms of tourism generate 2.6 million jobs in the Gulf states, nearly five times the number of jobs provided by the region’s other three largest resource-based industries: commercial fishing, oil and gas, and shipping.

“With so many outdoor adventure opportunities, tourism is a critical industry to our coastal parishes,” Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said. “Sportsman’s Paradise is more than our state’s nickname. If Louisiana is to remain the Sportsman’s Paradise, we have to ensure that funds Louisiana receives as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill are properly and wisely spent preserving our paradise.”

Lt. Gov. Dardenne will speak at a press conference Tuesday, July 9 in New Orleans along with Billy Nungesser, president, Plaquemines Parish; Charlotte Randolph, president, Lafourche Parish; John F. Young, Jr., president, Jefferson Parish; Capt. Ryan Lambert, owner, Cajun Fishing Adventures; Mark Romig, president, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation; Alon Shaya, executive chef, Domenica, Besh Restaurant Group; and Marcy Lowe, president, Datu Research LLC.

The study’s findings underscore the direct connection between the health of the ecosystem and the economic health of the Gulf region and the urgency for using the pending influx of monies from the RESTORE Act and other payments resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to properly and effectively restore the fragile Gulf Coast ecosystems.

“The conservation solutions that last are the ones that make economic sense and consider the needs of local communities,” said Scott Burns, director of the environment program at the Walton Family Foundation, which helped fund the survey. “This study connects the dots between a healthy Gulf environment, abundant wildlife and the good jobs that depend on tourism. This report adds to the growing evidence that investing in real restoration in the Gulf is the best way to create jobs and build economic prosperity across the region.”

Datu Research LLC is an economic research firm whose principals were part of the Duke University Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness. They have previously released three analyses of supply chains associated with the work of coastal restoration, showing that more than 400 businesses in 36 states would benefit from such work.

This study was funded by Environmental Defense Fund with support from the Walton Family Foundation.

Part II: Supporting comments

Comments from participants in release of study: Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy

John Young, president, Jefferson Parish: “This study further supports the direct link between a healthy coastal environment and a robust economy which depends on a $19 billion wildlife tourism industry. The well-being and continued growth of our coastal communities depend on the health of the Gulf, restoring and strengthening our fragile ecosystems, and promoting a wildlife tourism industry which can thrive, not only in Jefferson Parish but in all Gulf Coast states.”

Billy Nungesser, president, Plaquemines Parish: “Plaquemines Parish and Louisiana are the nation’s premier delta coastline. We are strategically positioned as the fishing capital of the world, the sportsmen’s paradise state and the seafood capital of the United States, and these factors which make Plaquemines and Louisiana unique depend on the health of our coast.”

Michael Hecht, president & CEO, Greater New Orleans, Inc.:  “Tourism overall, including wildlife tourism, provides 2.6 million jobs across the Gulf States – and many of these are with small businesses. To protect this vital economic base, as well as other important coastal industries, we must prioritize large-scale coastal restoration projects that will ensure a stable coast and healthy environment.”

Mark Romig, president,  New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation: “New Orleans attracts the experiential discover type of tourist, one who enjoys using the city as a base to go out and explore any authentic and unique aspects of the city and region, including the natural world. For the many businesses in this region, the need to restore and preserve our coastal wetlands is not optional; it’s an urgent economic necessity.”

Capt. Ryan Lambert, owner, Cajun Fishing Adventures: “I’ve grown up loving and making a living from the waters of the Louisiana coast and for more than 30 years, my business has been taking people fishing in those waters. But every year, as I see places disappearing from the map, I fear I may be part of the last generation to live off the water.”

Ralph Brennan, president, Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group: “Family restaurants like mine depend on a healthy Gulf Coast for the fresh seafood that has made New Orleans the culinary capital of the United States. The money states are beginning to receive to repair the damages from the Deepwater Horizon spill are our best – and may be our last real chance – to reverse decades of mistakes.”

Marcy Lowe, president, Datu Research LLC.: “This study shows the vital connection between the health of the ecosystem and the economic health of the Gulf region. Wildlife tourism is a major contributor to the Gulf Coast economy, but it’s very survival depends on the restoration of an endangered and irreplaceable ecosystem.”

Part III: Key study findings

Report: Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy

Key findings for the Gulf region

Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy,” a survey produced by Datu Research LLC, finds that in the five Gulf Coast states:

  • Tourism generates 2.6 million jobs, nearly five times the number of jobs created by the region’s other three largest resource-based industries combined: commercial fishing, oil and gas, and shipping.
  • In Gulf Coast coastal counties and parishes where economies are particularly dependent on tourism, 20-36 percent of all private sector employment is tourism-related.
  • Wildlife tourism, which includes wildlife watching, recreational fishing and hunting, generates more than $19 billion in annual spending.
  • Wildlife tourism generates $5.3 billion annually in federal, state and local tax revenues, divided roughly equally between local and state tax revenues and federal revenues. In 2011, Gulf Coast state and local governments received $2.5 billion and the federal government $2.8 billion from wildlife tourism. Recreational fishing generates the highest amount of tax revenue at $2.2 billion followed by $2 billion from wildlife watching and $1.2 billion from hunting.
  • Wildlife tourism attracts 20 million participants annually across the five Gulf Coast states. The wildlife tourism industry consists not only of wildlife guide businesses that directly serve wildlife tourists, but also the lodging and dining establishments where they eat and sleep.
  • Gulf Coast tourism – and wildlife tourism in particular – is highly dependent on a healthy coastal environment.
  • More than 11,000 lodging and dining establishments and 1,100 guide and outfitters businesses create business networks that depend on each other for referrals. In a survey of over 500 guide and outfitter businesses, about 40 percent of respondents said clients ask them for hotel recommendations and 55 percent said clients request restaurant recommendations. Likewise, more than 60 percent of guide businesses receive clients based on recommendations from hotels and restaurants.
  • Guide and outfitting operations represent a strong network of small businesses that have a large impact on local tourism. More than 86 percent of these businesses have one to five employees, and nearly 60 percent host more than 200 visitors per year, with many hosting several thousand.

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What does a “record-setting dead zone” mean for Louisiana’s coast?

June 25, 2013 | Posted by Rachel Schott in Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA), Reports, Science, Seafood, Wildlife

By Rachel Schott, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign

Dead zone. Words that bring images of military exercises or deserted, war-torn areas of land, but certainly not an acceptable description of a region that contains some of the nation’s most vibrant and diverse ecosystems, wildlife and habitats. Right?

The predicted "record-breaking" area of the Gulf of Mexico and coastline that would be affected in this year's dead zone.

Recent studies released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and conducted by Louisiana State University, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and University of Michigan scientists forecast a “record-setting dead zone” for the Gulf of Mexico this summer. The studies suggest that the 2013 dead zone area could be anywhere between 7,286 and 8,561 square miles, which would be substantially larger than last year’s dead zone of almost 2,900 square miles.

According to NOAA, dead zones are not uncommon for waterways and estuaries, as they have recorded 166 dead zones along United States coastlines. As the Gulf of Mexico is at the receiving end of the country’s largest river system, the Mississippi River’s discharge is one of the main causes of the Gulf dead zone. Unfortunately, a dead zone is exactly what it sounds like: an area normally teeming with wildlife and vegetation is infiltrated by pollutants, fertilizer chemicals and industrial runoff. When the river’s more buoyant fresh water enters the Gulf of Mexico, it lies on top of the denser, saltier water, causing a stratification that isolates the deeper waters from receiving a necessary amount of oxygen.

The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) explains that the influx of these unnatural substances and nutrients results in the overgrowth of algae and marine organisms on the surface of the water. At the end of their life cycle, they sink to the bottom and are decomposed by bacteria, a process that depletes the oxygen supply from the water, making the existence of life nearly impossible. Every type of marine life is affected, from Gulf fish to tiny marine organisms, which are all essential parts of an interdependent ecosystem necessary for maintaining the balance of life in the Gulf of Mexico.

In scientific terms, the low oxygen is known as hypoxia and has severe effects on the future health and growth of ecosystems. TIME Magazine recently reported that the Gulf of Mexico may soon become an “aquatic desert” and attributes the problems to recent weather conditions in the Midwest: heavy rainfall and flooding increases the levels of nutrients and pollutants in the river. All of these compounding problems will contribute to the 2013 possibly record-setting dead zone.

Scientists state that the dead zone would be less severe if a tropical storm were to enter the area, which would mix up the Gulf’s waters and facilitate oxygenation. The irony of this fact is that it leaves Louisiana residents in a less-than-ideal situation.

To read more about the causes and effects of dead zones, check out NOAA’s State of the Coast website: http://stateofthecoast.noaa.gov/hypoxia/dead_zone.html.

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Path Forward plan must focus on ecosystem restoration

February 6, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in BP Oil Disaster, Diversions, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, Job Creation, Reports, Restoration Projects, RESTORE Act, Science

By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council recently released "The Path Forward to Restoring the Gulf Coast: A Proposed Comprehensive Plan." The RESTORE Act, signed into law in July, required the newly created Restoration Council to publish a Proposed Plan within six months of the legislation becoming law. Only six pages in length, the Path Forward provides a general framework for the Restoration Council to follow while developing their more robust Initial Comprehensive Plan, due out in July 2013. Moving forward, it is important that the Restoration Council create a Comprehensive Plan concentrated on restoring Gulf Coast ecosystems, which are the backbone of a healthy and thriving gulf economy.

Following the 2010 gulf oil disaster, Congress passed the RESTORE Act to ensure robust restoration of the Gulf Coast. Through the RESTORE Act, Congress developed a framework for federal and state officials to undertake comprehensive restoration. Congress provided money for restoration by ensuring at least 30 percent of funds under the RESTORE Act are dedicated to ecosystem projects. To oversee much of the restoration, the RESTORE Act establishes a highly experienced body of federal and state stakeholders, known at the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. Finally, the law requires the Restoration Council to develop a scientifically-based Comprehensive Plan to guide ecosystem restoration projects to implementation. The “Path Forward” document is a first step to building a plan for ecosystem restoration.

Allocation of RESTORE Act Funds (Source: The Path Forward to Restoring the Gulf Coast: A Proposed Comprehensive Plan).

As expected, and required by law, the Path Forward builds on the work and recommendations of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which was led by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Task Force strategy had four overarching goals: habitat restoration, restore water quality, replenish marine resources and enhance community resilience. The newly released Path Forward adds a fifth goal of revitalizing the gulf economy. Moving forward, it is important for the Restoration Council to ensure that funds dedicated to the Comprehensive Plan are used solely for ecosystem restoration projects. After all, numerous studies have shown that ecosystem restoration supports economic restoration, including healthy tourism and fishing industries. New jobs created by the ecosystem restoration projects help protect existing infrastructure, rebuild critical wetlands, and create a new export industry focused on coastal and delta restoration.

Initial Comprehensive Plan Development Timeline (Source: The Path Forward to Restoring the Gulf Coast: A Proposed Comprehensive Plan).

We are excited about the Restoration Council’s commitment to long-term recovery in the gulf. In the Path Forward, the Restoration Council has reaffirmed their plans to invest in “specific actions, projects, and programs that can be carried out in the near-term to help ensure on-the-ground results to restore the overall health of the ecosystem.” By incorporating the best available science and adapting the Comprehensive Plan over time to incorporate new science, the plan can advance innovative ecosystem restoration solutions, like freshwater sediment diversions.

We look forward to the next draft of the Comprehensive Plan due out sometime before July.

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Study on sedimentation will help planners develop effective river diversions

December 4, 2012 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2011 Mississippi River Flood, 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Diversions, Reports, Science

By Alisha A. Renfro, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

This year, drought conditions throughout most of the country have left the Mississippi River flowing at a near all-time low. This is a stark comparison to 2011, when heavy rains and a large snowmelt in the spring sent record levels of water and sediment flowing down the river. At the Old River Control Structure north of Baton Rouge, the flow of the river is split, with 70 percent continuing down the Mississippi to the Bird’s Foot delta, and the remaining 30 percent flowing down the Atchafalaya River. During the 2011 flood, the flood protection levees and the opening of the Morganza and Bonnet Carré spillways successfully shunted water safely past the high population centers in the region. However, this event was a missed opportunity to capitalize on the influx of fresh water and sediment and to reconnect the river with sediment-starved wetlands of Louisiana.

In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, research led by Federico Falcini, Ph.D. examined the link between the historic 2011 river flood and sediment accumulation in nearby wetlands. Their analysis suggested that the natural dynamics of the coastal system coupled with man-made alterations to the river system influenced the amount of sediment deposited in the wetlands. This work shows that under river flood conditions, diverting the flow of the river into shallow basins adjacent to the river could contribute significantly to sediment deposition in the wetlands and therefore contribute to wetland growth.

Mississippi River sediment plumes, as viewed from space (May 17, 2011). Credit: NASA Modis imagery

In the study, the sediment plumes of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers were tracked using satellite imagery from the 2011 flood event to understand where the sediment went once it exited these rivers. The Mississippi’s sediment plume exited the river in focused jets of sediment-laden water due to the confinement of much of the river’s flow between artificial levees. This plume moved past the coastal current and into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, limiting the amount of sediment that could be deposited in the near-shore area and adjacent wetlands. In contrast, the Atchafalaya’s sediment plume exited the river and moved along a broad, near-shore area, mixing with waters from the Gulf of Mexico and creating conditions that were likely to favor sediment deposition.

A comparison of sediment accumulation during the 2011 flood in nearby marshes shows a trend that corresponds to the difference in behavior of the two river plumes. Sediment accumulation was highest at marsh sites near the Atchafalaya River, which supports the idea that its sediment plume spreading out over a large area in relatively shallow water, promoting increased sedimentation in the region. Sediment accumulation in wetlands near the mouth of the Mississippi River was substantial, but significantly lower than near the Atchafalaya. While the Mississippi River carried a larger sediment load during the 2011 flood event, much of the sediment was lost to the deeper waters of the gulf.

Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan identifies several sediment diversions that are key to restoring the important coastal Louisiana landscape. The success of these diversions will depend on a variety of factors, including location and operation. However, this new research confirms that fine sediments introduced into shallow water can substantially contribute to sediment accumulation in wetlands. In order to restore the rapidly deteriorating wetlands of coastal Louisiana, it is critical to reintroduce the sediment that once built this productive region.

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