Archive for Science


Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative examines oil spill’s effects on environmental and public health

February 26, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Meetings/Events, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund

GRI_WebsiteBanner_r1_c1The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) hosted its 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference January 26-29 in Mobile, Ala. GoMRI was created soon after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster when BP committed $500 million over 10 years to fund a broad, independent research program with the purpose of studying the environmental and public health impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The conference drew several hundred attendees from academia, state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations who gathered to hear presentations on cutting-edge research about the impacts of the Gulf oil disaster and continuing socio-ecological recovery. This conference, the second of its kind, facilitates interdisciplinary discussion by giving GoMRI-funded researchers from many different fields an opportunity to come together.

The four-day event entailed around 150 oral presentations in 10 different sessions, more than 400 poster presentations and nearly a dozen other associated meetings, events and plenary sessions. Some of the conference sessions were very technical, including transportation of oil spill residues (i.e., tar balls and tar mats) and dispersants, and impacts of the oil spill on fisheries, coastal marshes and nearshore water ecosystems. Other sessions were technological, focusing on ecosystem monitoring and data management, while others examined the human side, looking at public health and socio-economic issues.

Some of the research coming out of the Coastal Waters Consortium is particularly interesting because it goes beyond the physical and chemical impacts of the spill, focusing on broader ecological issues such as coastal processes and food webs. Dr. Sabrina Taylor is the principle investigator looking at the post-spill reproductive success, survival and dispersal of the Seaside sparrow, a bird that lives its entire life on salt marsh and is very sensitive to environmental changing, making it an excellent “indicator species.”

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Dr. Sabrina Taylor releases a Seaside Sparrow in its Louisiana marsh home after collecting information about its condition. (Photo credit: Phil Stouffer)

Dr. Christy Bergeron Burns presented preliminary results showing less species abundance and less reproductive productivity for the Seaside sparrow in oiled versus unoiled areas of Barataria Bay, La. While the trend in abundance was less pronounced in 2013 than it was in 2012, the trends in reproductive indicators (number of nests, failed nests and fledglings) remained consistent. With more data to collect in 2014, this study has not yet reached any final conclusions. But these preliminary results are prompting questions that are shaping the ongoing research to determine the factors that are causing these trends: Has exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs – compounds found in crude oil – directly impacted the bird’s reproductive success and habitat selection? Is PAH exposure, or environmental stress in general, affecting hormone levels in this species? Or has the primary food source of the birds – insects – been impacted by the spill somehow, indirectly affecting reproductive success and habitat selection of the Seaside sparrow?

After scientifically assessing the correlation of ecological changes to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers will dig deeper to understand what has actually caused these changes. Continued collection and analysis of data will give the scientific community a clearer, evidence-based picture of how the oil spill affected specific components of the Gulf ecosystem. But the Gulf Coast region will not get the most benefit from this extensive research until scientists have started to develop a more comprehensive, ecosystem-wide understanding of how the oil spill has impacted the Gulf of Mexico.

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Rebuilding coastal Louisiana, using the natural power of the mighty Mississippi

February 12, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2011 Mississippi River Flood, 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Birds, Diversions, Mardi Gras Pass, Restoration Projects, Science

This was originally posted by Environmental Defense Fund on EDF Voices.

By Estelle Robichaux, Restoration Project Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

Soon after my flyover of the Mississippi River Delta, I joined Dr. John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) on a boat ride down the Bohemia Spillway to Mardi Gras Pass. As we sped down the spillway canal, beautiful swamp lilies and purple morning glories popped out against a backdrop of lush, green plants. Once we reached our destination, we saw an incredible number of birds: Laughing Gulls, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue and Tricolored Herons – just to name a few. This, along with an increase in the number of river otters and beavers observed, is a good indicator that there are healthy fish populations in the area.

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Thirty-five miles southeast of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Pass is the Mississippi River’s newest and naturally evolving “distributary,” a channel of water that flows away from the main branch of the river. This new distributary began forming during the spring flood of 2011, when the water level of the Mississippi River was so high that it flowed over the natural levee in this area. When the floodwaters receded, Dr. Lopez and his team of scientists noticed two breaches in the embankment. These breaches continued to widen and deepen and soon, right around Mardi Gras Day 2012, the breach was complete. The Mississippi River was once again connected to the surrounding wetlands, allowing freshwater and land-building sediment back into the area.

Losing Louisiana

Louisiana has lost 25% of its coastal land area since 1930 and continues to lose land at an alarming rate – one football field every hour, on average. Man-made levees along the Mississippi River cut off many small distributaries, like Mardi Gras Pass, from the wetlands in the floodplain of the river and have contributed to this massive wetland loss. Our team here at EDF works with partner organizations, including the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, as part of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition, which has a vision of reconnecting the Mississippi River to its delta to help protect people, wildlife and jobs in coastal Louisiana.

To address the complex, yet urgent need for coastal restoration in Louisiana, the state legislature unanimously passed the 2012 Coastal Master Plan. This plan is a long-term, science-based restoration program that includes nearly 250 restoration projects such as barrier island restoration, marsh creation, establishment of oyster barrier reefs and sediment diversions that will help rebuild Louisiana’s disappearing coast.

Restoring our coast, restoring my hope

One of the principal guidelines for restoration under the Coastal Master Plan is to address the root causes of land loss by using the natural power of the Mississippi River to build land at a large scale. Sediment diversions, a central component of the plan, embody this principle because they are designed to mimic the natural stages of the river and carry sediment to the areas of coastal Louisiana that need it most. By operating diversions at times of high water flow (like during a flood), large amounts of sediment can be diverted. It will then settle out in the wetlands and shallow bays, eventually building land mass in vulnerable coastal areas.

In a way, Mardi Gras Pass is a naturally occurring ‘pilot project’ of a sediment diversion. Knowledge gained from studying this area can tell us about the land-building properties, as well as the short-term effects, of sediment diversions. To learn more about this, LPBF scientists are studying how the reintroduction of freshwater and sediment to the spillway area is changing the wetlands and affecting wildlife populations.

Swift currents and downed trees along the edge of the flooded forest can make navigating Mardi Gras Pass somewhat treacherous, but we, in a trusty 14’ skiff, maneuvered through the channel and onto the Mississippi River for a brief but thrilling cruise.

This is what it means for the river to be connected to its floodplain, I thought as we emerged out onto the open water, this is what this ecosystem is supposed to be like.

Although I grew up only a few miles from it, this was the third time in my life I had been out on the Mississippi River and the first time it was in a boat small enough that I could reach down and touch its muddy waters. As our tiny boat circled out in that mighty river, despite the heat and the midday sun, I had goose bumps.

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Expert panel discusses diversions as a coastal restoration tool

January 17, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Army Corps of Engineers, Diversions, Meetings/Events, Restoration Projects, Science

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

Last week in Baton Rouge, The Water Institute of the Gulf hosted the inaugural meeting of the Expert Panel on Diversion Planning and Implementation. The panel – comprised of 12 experts in natural and social sciences, engineering and economics – was selected from more than 60 nominees from across the country. Panel members are all from outside Louisiana, in order to foster critical and constructive review of work being led by Louisiana-based experts. Under the direction of The Water Institute of the Gulf and meeting up to three times a year, this independent panel will provide technical review, input and guidance as the state moves forward and refines its plans for diverting fresh water and sediment from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to build, maintain and sustain coastal wetlands. For this first meeting, the panel was asked to consider the most suitable approaches to addressing current or perceived uncertainties in the planning and design of sediment diversions.

The first day of this meeting was open to the public and included a series of presentations outlining the urgent need for restoration in coastal Louisiana as well as various perspectives on sediment diversions. Kyle Graham, Deputy Executive Director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), summarized Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan. In his presentation, Graham pointed out that there was no single restoration project type that can address the state’s land-loss crisis in one fell swoop, but that a suite of restoration projects are needed, including barrier island restoration, marsh creation, oyster barrier reefs, shoreline protection, hydrologic restoration and sediment diversions. Barrier island restoration and marsh creation can mechanically create land in strategic locations, but sediment diversions convey sediment to not only build new land but also to maintain existing wetlands that would otherwise be lost.

2012-Master-Plan-Coastwide1

Brigadier General Duke DeLuca, Commander of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division, presented the Corps’ perspective on sediment diversions. DeLuca discussed some of the questions that the Corps would like to see answered as sediment diversions move from plan to implementation. Many of these outstanding questions should be directly addressed through the Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study, a joint project being conducted by the State of Louisiana and the Corps. The study will use historic and field data, along with models, to do an assessment of large-scale restoration features to address sustainability of the Mississippi River Delta.

Additional presenters included Jim Tripp from Environmental Defense Fund, Michael Massimi from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, Dr. Ehab Mesehle from The Water Institute of the Gulf and Dr. Alaa Ali from South Florida Water Management District.

In a late afternoon panel, Mark Wingate and Martin Mayer of the Corps’ New Orleans District, John Ettinger of the Environmental Protection Agency and Ronnie Paille of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discussed their federal agencies’ views on diversions. Afterwards, the public was given the opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns about coastal restoration directly to the panel.

The following day, panel members met in private to discuss the uncertainties discussed and the science that needs to be done to address these uncertainties. A report on that meeting will be given at a CPRA meeting in the coming months.

Bold solutions are needed to halt the rate of catastrophic land loss in coastal Louisiana. Every year, communities throughout the coast inch closer to disaster, becoming more and more exposed to the destructive forces of storm events. Infrastructure, which is vitally important to the economy of Louisiana and the nation, becomes more vulnerable, and important habitat for wildlife, fish and birds vanishes.

Limited by money and sediment resources, there is no one type of restoration project that is a cure-all solution. A suite of restoration projects that strengthen and sustain the landscape is necessary. Sediment diversions use the natural power of the river to build new land and help maintain the existing wetlands. To do nothing or to only implement the least challenging types of restoration projects would doom the resource-rich Louisiana coast.

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When it comes to restoration, let nature fill in the details

December 19, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Restoration Projects, Science

This was originally posted by Environmental Defense Fund on EDF Voices: People on the Planet.

By David Festa, Vice President, West Coast & Land, Water & Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund

I was struck by a line in an article in the new issue of Scientific American. It called the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands “the greatest environmental, economic and cultural tragedy on the North American continent.”

healthy_bird_0It’s easy to see why they would say that. Since the 1930s, efforts to control the Mississippi River and widespread energy development in the delta have resulted in the sacrifice of 1,900 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands to the sea. If that had happened on the east coast, an area twice the size of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. put together would be under water. Of course, the engineering projects on the Mississippi spurred over a century of economic development and navigation. But the cost has been the loss of the original delta ecosystem, leaving coastal communities more exposed to storm surges and a rising sea level.

As dramatic as that is, the thing that caught my eye even more was another line in the Scientific American article: “Many wetland recovery programs have failed by trying to re-create the original ecosystems.”

The article goes on to make a point that we don’t have to re-create the past to make things better for people and the planet. In fact, when you think clearly and specifically about the need we as a society are trying to meet, and then ask how nature can help meet that need, surprisingly positive things can happen.

Consider Scientific American’s example of the Delaware Bay, an ecosystem that was teeming with aquatic life before settlers built dikes and drained thousands of acres to grow crops.

“Looming on the New Jersey shore of the bay is the Salem nuclear power plant, owned by utility giant PSEG. The plant sucks in billions of gallons of water a day for cooling and kills millions of tiny fish and other creatures as they get drawn through the intake valves. In the early 1990s state regulators asked PSEG to build cooling towers to end the carnage. Reluctant to spend $1 billion to $2 billion, the utility proposed an alternative: restore enough salt marsh to compensate for the loss of fish — more than 10,000 acres.”

The restoration team decided to take a less-is-more approach — cut gaps in the dikes that would let just the right amount of water into the marsh to create an initial maze of tidal creeks, and then let the rest of the creeks develop on their own. “If you engineer a drainage system in great detail, the system is forced to go the way you think it ought to be,” a restoration expert told the publication. “But if you allow it to develop itself, it’s more likely to be stable.”

Today, reports Scientific American, the increase in fish populations more than makes up for the losses from the power plant’s water intake, and the restoration looks like the natural marshes next door. Plus, it saved consumers money because letting nature meet the need cost hundreds of millions of dollars less than the concrete cooling towers.

Reversing Damage

You see this principle at work in the efforts of EDF and our allies in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, as part of ongoing efforts to reverse losses in the Mississippi River Delta, Louisiana passed the Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. This landmark plan serves as the blueprint for restoring Louisiana’s wetlands, and it follows two tenets that proved so successful in the Delaware Bay. First, it focuses on a single goal: rebuilding and sustaining hundreds of square miles of land. Secondly, it relies on nature to do the bulk of the reconstruction. Sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River will be diverted into marshes and shores. Over time, the sediment will create new land and a more resilient coastline.

In the face of extreme weather and global sea-level rise, this new approach takes on great meaning. Superstorm Sandy provided powerful illustrations of how wetlands can serve as a first line of defense against extreme weather events. Salt marsh remnants along Long Island’s Jamaica Bay, for example, helped to protect residents there, while the lack of wetlands around Manhattan left it exposed to crashing waves.

More than 3 billion souls — 40 percent of the world's population — live as close to the sea as New Orleans. By letting nature back into the game, we can help rebuild coastal Louisiana and turn “a North American tragedy” into a model of success for protecting nearly half the planet’s population.

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New study looks at groundwater transport flows and their effects on estuaries in the Mississippi River Delta

December 13, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Science

By Alisha A. Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

Estuaries are some of the productive – and in many ways, some of the most complex – ecosystems in the world. The abundance and distribution of fish and wildlife within an estuary largely depends on the amount, location and frequency of freshwater inflow. The construction of flood control levees along the lower Mississippi River has severely constricted the surface freshwater flow into the surrounding basins. However, a new study published in the Journal of Hydrology, “Pathways and processes associated with the transport of groundwater in deltaic systems,” led by Alex Kolker, Ph.D., suggests that additional fresh water from the Mississippi River is introduced into these estuaries as submarine groundwater discharge through sandy paleochannels buried beneath the muddy delta surface. These findings may have important implications for the ecology of the estuaries adjacent to the Mississippi River as well as coastal restoration projects in the Mississippi River Delta.

Submarine groundwater discharge refers to the release of groundwater directly into marine waters. Much like rivers, submarine groundwater delivers fresh water, nutrients and metals to coastal waters. However, it is often invisible, as the water seeps through permeable sediments, rather than moving through confined channels on the earth’s surface. In the study, the researchers investigated several different lines of evidence to determine if submarine groundwater flux from the Mississippi River was a significant source of fresh water to Barataria Bay, a basin adjacent to the west bank of the river.

Groundwater transport flows

Diagram of the river stage-driven submarine groundwater flux from the Mississippi River into adjacent estuaries.

The researchers found that there were localized sources of fresh groundwater into the bay and the flux of groundwater varied over time. Investigation into the unseen geology of the bay indicated that the input of submarine groundwater into Barataria Bay was associated with more permeable sandy sediments that were remnants of distributary channels and other sandy deposits built prior to the leveeing of the river system. The results also suggest that the variable nature of the submarine freshwater discharge into the bay is linked to river stage, where high water levels in the river are associated with increased groundwater flow. Overall, the study evidence suggests that while the flux of groundwater into Barataria Bay may be limited by river stage and the presence of sandy paleochannels, submarine groundwater was a major source of freshwater into the bay, with results suggesting fresh groundwater flux exceeds the limited surface water inputs.

The importance of submarine groundwater as a freshwater source in the delta may have very important implications for the ecology of the estuaries adjacent to the river. The transitional environments between freshwater and saltwater, estuaries – influenced by a combination of freshwater flow, rainfall, tides, winds, waves and storm events – are some of the most dynamic ecosystems on earth. This is undeniably the case in the Mississippi River Delta, where estuarine conditions vary day to day, week to week and year to year. In addition to these factors that drive estuarine conditions throughout the world, the Mississippi River Delta’s estuaries are also affected by devastating wetland loss and encroaching salt water from the Gulf of Mexico which, when combined with the severely limited freshwater inputs, has shifted the abundance and distribution of the assortment of fish and wildlife that depend on the estuary.

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Basics of the Basin research symposium discusses past, present and future of the Pontchartrain Basin

November 6, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Mardi Gras Pass, Meetings/Events, Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, Science

By Shannon Hood and Estelle S. Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund

On October 24-25, 2013, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) hosted its 11th Basics of the Basin research symposium. Scientists and researchers from academia, non-profit organizations, private consulting groups and federal and state agencies gathered at the University of New Orleans (UNO) on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to discuss the past, present and future issues of the Pontchartrain Basin. LPBF has hosted these biennial symposiums since 1992, providing an opportunity for students and established researchers alike to share and discuss the most up-to-date research on the restoration and management of Louisiana’s Pontchartrain Basin.

After opening remarks by Dr. John Lopez, executive director of LPBF, the plenary continued with comments and presentations from Phil Turnipseed of the U.S. Geological Survey; Dr. Ioannis Georgiou, Director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at UNO; and Dr. Chip Groat, President and CEO of The Water Institute of the Gulf, among others. The conference was grouped into seven general session topics, including hydrodynamic modeling, water quality, storm surge protection, river diversions, wetland restoration, the Central Wetlands Unit and fisheries. Because of the diversity of environmental concerns within the Pontchartrain Basin, broad, interdisciplinary research is essential to effective system-wide restoration and management.

Understanding the present condition of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin requires a look into the history of the lake itself. Dr. Oliver Houck, professor at the Tulane University Law School, provided the storied account of the history of Lake Pontchartrain during his keynote speech. He spoke of the lake’s days as a hot spot for recreation, as well as its decline during the years when the lake was dredged for the clam shells that lined the bottom. This dredging caused a rapid decline in the health and suitability of this lake for wildlife habitat and for recreation. A few brave souls recognized the trauma that the lake was enduring and took on the task of halting the dredging to allow the lake to begin to heal. Through years of dedication, lawsuits and creative thinking, the dredging was successfully stopped, and the healing process began.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s original research was well represented at the conference, with 14 presentations in six different sessions. Eva Hillman presented LBPF’s research into the salinity levels found within wetland soils in the Central Wetlands Unit (CWU), just west of New Orleans. Construction of the nearby Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in 1968 allowed salt water to easily enter these previously freshwater wetlands and lead to severe deterioration of the CWU wetlands. Although the MRGO has been closed since 2009, much of the area still remains highly degraded. LPBF scientists are monitoring soil salinity throughout the CWU to inform restoration efforts, specifically re-vegetation projects.

Mardi Gras Pass, March 2012. Credit: LPBF

Research conducted by LPBF scientists on Mardi Gras Pass, a new and evolving distributary of the Mississippi River, was also on display. Dr. Theryn Henkel presented preliminary research on where the fresh water and sediment from Mardi Gras Pass is going once it enters the receiving basin. Results from this study indicate that the deposition of sediment happens well before the influence of fresh water on salinity levels in the receiving basin is no longer observed, and that sediment travels further into the northern areas of the basin than it does to the south. Andreas Moshogianis presented the preliminary findings of ongoing biological assessments in Mardi Gras Pass, most notably that a range of both fresh- and saltwater fishes have been caught during these assessments, often in the same net. LPBF’s research on Mardi Gras Pass is important because it has implications for future restoration efforts throughout coastal Louisiana, as scientists and citizens work to reconnect the Mississippi River with its delta.

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Recap of Wednesday's Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study Technical Meeting

October 25, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Army Corps of Engineers, Diversions, Meetings/Events, Restoration Projects, Science

By Alisha Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

The Mississippi River is one of the most managed river systems in the world. However, that management has focused on navigation and flood control needs to the detriment of the economically and ecologically important coastal Louisiana landscape. This week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) hosted a public meeting in New Orleans to present information and preliminary results of their joint effort on the Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study. This large-scale, long-term study is developing tools to evaluate different combinations of restoration projects in an effort to address the long-term sustainability of the Mississippi River and its delta while balancing the needs of navigation, flood protection and restoration.

The scope of the study extends from Vicksburg, Miss. south to the Bird’s Foot delta. The study is actually comprised of two coupled, but somewhat distinct, efforts. The hydrodynamic portion of the study will focus on characterizing the dynamics in the river and developing models that can be used to evaluate river-side changes due to proposed freshwater and sediment diversion projects. It will also inform location and design of these projects to maximize their effectiveness and minimize the potential for shoaling in the river’s navigation channel. The delta management part of the study will focus on the basin-side benefits and changes caused by these restoration projects. The delta management portion of the study has not yet begun. Currently, the state of Louisiana and the Army Corps are working to define the depth and breadth of that part of the study.

The afternoon session of the meeting focused on detailed technical presentations on the study. The different tasks of the Mississippi River Hydrodynamic and Delta Management Study include a geomorphic assessment, data collection and an extensive modeling effort. The geomorphic assessment focuses on compiling historical river data, dredging records and satellite imagery to document the historical trends in the river. The data collection effort will compile existing data and conduct field work to fill in gaps in understanding of the water and sediment dynamics that currently exist in the river. The historical data and present data will be integrated into the modeling work to inform the models and to ensure that the models capture the dynamics of the river system. The modeling effort includes a suite of models that each has different strengths and weaknesses. These models will be used to forecast the large-scale, long-term and shorter-term regional changes expected in the river in both a future without river diversions and a future that includes different combinations of diversion projects.

The presentations from the technical meeting indicate that this collaborative state of Louisiana and Army Corps effort has moved forward significantly since it began. The geomorphic assessment has been completed and a final report on its results is expected by the end of this year. The data collection effort is ongoing, having captured the low discharge of the river last year and the higher flow discharge from this past spring. Many of the preliminary model simulations have begun, and the preliminary results presented at this meeting emphasized the dynamic nature of the Mississippi River system, where water discharge, sediment transport and deposition can not only vary greatly from year to year, but also from week to week. The preliminary results also point to the importance of appropriate size, location and operation of sediment diversions in order to maximize sediment conveyance into adjacent wetlands and to reduce potential riverside impacts.

The Mississippi River has been a key feature in the growth and development of the U.S. However, for more than 80 years, the management of the river has focused on balancing the needs of navigation and flood control. A shift away from that management scheme towards one that balances navigation, flood control and restoration is absolutely critical for the survival of the delta ecosystem and, ultimately, the communities and navigation industry that depend on the Mississippi River Delta. The Hydrodynamic and Delta Management study is poised to be the effort that changes the way we think about management of the river and how we build a more sustainable, holistic system for our future.

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Science plays key role in determining amount of oil spilled during 2010 Gulf disaster

October 17, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in BP Oil Disaster, Clean Water Act, Science

By Alisha Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation 

A "vessel of opportunity" skims oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon/BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Photo: NOAA.

The unprecedented scale of the 2010 BP oil spill and the further complexity introduced by its deep water location pushed scientists involved in the response effort to apply both old and new research methods to estimate the rate of oil flow from the well and the total volume of oil spilled. Currently in New Orleans, phase II of the BP oil spill trial – which will focus on that very question of how much oil gushed from the well into the Gulf during the 86 days between the initial blowout and when the well was finally capped – is underway. Ultimately, this total volume of oil spilled will play a key role in determining the amount of Clean Water Act penalties BP will pay. The decisions made during this phase of trial will come down on the hard work and innovation of the scientific community’s response to a spill that happened under difficult conditions that didn't have easy solutions.

In an article in the December 2012 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists involved in the response reviewed the different methods used to estimate the flow rate of crude oil from the well. The researchers concluded that the science supports flow rates that ranged from 50,000 to 70,000 barrels of oil per day, resulting in a total release of around 5 million barrels of oil from the well, with 4.2 million barrels making it into the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem due to recapturing efforts by BP.

In the days immediately following the April 20, 2010 well blowout, the flow rate of oil from the well was one of the most critical pieces of information needed to inform response efforts and prepare designs and procedures that could be used to try and cap the well. Measuring the rate of flow of oil was more complicated than it may seem as the material gushing from the well consisted of a combination of oil and natural gas. To meet this need, an official technical group was gathered which included experts from a variety of scientific disciplines that would work on estimating flow rate and the total volume of oil released.

Heavy band of oil seen during an overflight on May 12. Credit: NOAA.

Flow rate estimates were calculated from a variety of different methods, including oil collection at the sea surface, acoustic and video observations, sampling and analysis of the composition of the discharge material, infrared imaging from aircraft and from modeling the depletion of the reservoir after the well was capped. Some of these methods yielded what were considered more reliable estimates than others. However, quite remarkably, almost all of the methods reviewed in this article converged on flow rates that ranged from 50,000 to 70,000 barrels per day.

Based on the flow rate of oil and its variability with time, the science team involved estimated that approximately 5 million barrels of oil would have been discharged from the well over the 86 days it remained uncapped. Differences between flow rate measured at the well and flow rates calculated from what was observed at the ocean surface suggest that 2 million barrels of oil never made it to the ocean surface and remain in the deep sea. This suggests that the ongoing effects of the oil spill may not be known for years to come.

As phase II of trial continues this week, expert witnesses will testify on rate of oil flow from the Macondo well, using sound science to support their conclusions.

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Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council approves Initial Comprehensive Plan

September 6, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, BP Oil Disaster, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, Meetings/Events, RESTORE Act, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund

Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council meeting in New Orleans.

Last week, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council held a public meeting in New Orleans to vote on its Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy. The RESTORE Act, signed into law in July 2012, established the Council and tasked it with, among other duties, creating a long-term ecosystem restoration plan for the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In his opening remarks, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (Council member and host of the meeting) spoke of the many natural and human-caused disasters that have afflicted Louisiana in recent years: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac; and, of course, the BP oil disaster.

Jindal highlighted the need to move restoration projects forward and not let the bureaucratic process delay implementation of projects that have already been sufficiently vetted. Jindal stated he had “directed state officials to commit 100 percent of Louisiana’s RESTORE Act funding to ecosystem restoration and community resilience projects associated with our Master Plan.” While the governor acknowledged Transocean for stepping up by paying their Clean Water Act fines, he called on BP to stop spending millions of dollars in public relations, claiming that they have spent more money on television commercials than on actual restoration, while there are still 200 miles of oiled shoreline along the Gulf Coast.

David Muth, National Wildlife Federation

The chair of the Council, newly appointed Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, spoke following Jindal and stated, “the Gulf Region is part of who we are as Americans” and the Council wants “the world to see the Gulf Coast as a wonderful place to visit, work, play, and live.” Although the Comprehensive Plan in its current iteration is still very general, the Secretary took this opportunity to affirm that science will be integral in the decision-making process. She emphasized that the Council was committed to moving forward with the planning and restoration process, despite uncertainties about the ultimate amount or timing of available funds. The desire for momentum was underscored by the Council’s stated goal to begin selecting and funding projects within the next 12 months.

Justin Ehrenwerth, Executive Director of the Council, presented an overview of the Plan and discussed next steps before the Council unanimously voted to pass the Initial Comprehensive Plan and accompanying documents, including the Programmatic Environmental Assessment, Finding of No Significant Impact and Response to Public Comments. Mimi Drew (Chair of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council), Thomas Kelsch (Vice President of National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund) and Russ Beard (Acting Director of the RESTORE Act Science Program) gave overviews of their respective programs and how they anticipate coordinating with the Council and the Comprehensive Plan as it moves forward.

Doug Meffert, National Audubon Society

More than 50 people spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, which was notably held after the Council had already voted to accept the plan. Many residents of Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states traveled to New Orleans to have their voices heard. Most of them, having watched the natural areas around their lifelong homes degrade in recent years, encouraged, supported and even pleaded with the Council to move forward urgently with Gulf Coast restoration. In the words of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign’s own David Muth: “Delay is the enemy.”

Some individuals tried to further impress upon the Council the damage that had been done to the Gulf ecosystem, pointing to evidence of the continued presence of oil slicks and suspicious absence of wildlife around Mississippi Canyon block 252, where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform was located. Several staff members and experts from our Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign gave statements to the Council, reminding them that Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan is “not a perfect plan, but it is absolutely the best approach to coastal restoration that has been done.”

Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan was developed using a science-based process and examines both present-day and likely-future conditions of the coast. The Master Plan provides a model for how restoration should be addressed Gulf-wide, and the Council should work with Louisiana to prioritize restoration projects set forth in the state’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan.

Steve Cochran, Environmental Defense Fund

One of the most passionate speakers, who created the most poignant moment during the almost four-hour-long meeting, was 10-year-old Sean Turner. Sean, the youngest Conservation Pro Staff member of Vanishing Paradise, spoke with conviction about saving coastal Louisiana. “I want to save the coast,” said Sean. “I go fishing. I go hunting. That’s why I care. I want to stay here because Louisiana is Sportsman’s Paradise.” You can watch a video of Sean giving his comments here.

The next crucial step for the Council will be selecting projects that are consistent with the restoration priorities criteria defined in the RESTORE Act and will benefit and restore Gulf Coast ecosystems. The RESTORE Act requires that these projects be designed, selected, prioritized, and implemented using the best available science.

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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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