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Let’s begin today’s discussion with a quick thought experiment.

What is the single most important thing necessary to ensure the survival of the State of Louisiana?

Improved government administration?
More and better levees?
The success of the "Road Home" project?

I submit it is none of these.

The single most important factor determining the future of the State of Louisiana is mud.

That’s right, mud.

Were you aware that the entire State consists of mud? When you look at a geologic map, there is nothing to be seen but sedimentary deposits dating back to the Cambrian period.

And the mud, it is a-sinking.

Katrina took out more than 57 square miles of land in Plaquemines Parish alone. That former land is now the Gulf of Mexico.

The Army Corps of Engineers has maps of the Mississippi river from 1998. When you get to the page, click on map 141. What you see is a portion of Plaquemines Parish. (Here’s the same place on Google Maps.)

Notice almost the entire map area consists of water, canals, and marsh. There’s only two narrow strips of solid ground evident. Now let’s pull out a bit. There’s just about nothing in the image but sinking ground.  Now pull out just a little bit further, and guess what-there’s New Orleans.

This was the area of Louisiana most affected by Katrina.

It’s now time for you to meet Professor Oliver A. Houck. His essay "Can We Save New Orleans?", published in the Tulane Law Journal, will be central to the remainder of this conversation, and I would encourage you in the strongest terms to take the time to read the document.

Here are some of the issues he brings to light:

--There is no consensus on what is to be done-should the emphasis be on maximizing the amount of developable land; or should the emphasis be on maximizing opportunities for natural processes to replenish the bayous? These are two mutually exclusive goals, and Houck suggests development is winning.

--The Federal government is responsible for maintaining navigation on the Mississippi, but flood control is managed locally. As a result of this and the huge amounts of money that are spread around through levee and other water control project construction, politics has more influence on the management process than science and inter-jurisdictional coordination.

--Environmental pollution-especially fertilizer runoffs-kill the marsh grasses that hold the soil together. As a result, the process of saving Louisiana starts in South Dakota, and is therefore a national, not just a State problem.

--It is easier to calculate the cost-benefit of industrial and commercial activity than the cost-benefit of saving lives-and safety advocates have fewer lobbyists.

--Money spent now, on non-development rights, for example, will be cheaper than money spent later on reconstruction or remediation.

And the most important of all:

--It’s the constant movement of silt down the river that makes it possible for there to be a Louisiana-and America’s history of "taming" the Mississippi has nearly brought that process to a stop. The River carried 400 million tons a year of silt 150 years ago, Houck reports, and today carries only 80 million. Without that "new" land to deposit in the Delta, there is no way to offset the erosion to the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s not the only reason the State is sinking, however. Pumping drinking water from aquifers has an impact, and the expansion of the ocean caused by global warming does, too. Even the weight of the levees themselves on the soft soil is affecting the situation.

Professor Houck, being a "fix-it" kind of analyst, has offered a ten-point prescription for Louisiana recovery. Here’s the "Reader’s Digest Condensed Version":

  1. Draw the map-in other words, there needs to be a set of decisions made regarding exactly where humans will be allowed to control the land, and where the river will have its say.
  1. With a new map, reconsider the projects-Houck reminds us that Katrina changed everything, and that projects already designed or underway are probably the wrong solutions to today’s problems.
  1. "Free the Mississippi 400 million"-open dams upriver to allow the 400 million tons of silt to do its thing downriver.
  1. Free the rivers-the logical extension of point 3. Open the levees appropriately, and let the rivers do their thing.
  1. Cut the upstream fertilizers-we discussed this above-fertilizer kills grass, and that kills land. This is where parties outside Louisiana have to step up to the plate-the EPA, the Corps of Engineers, the various States, and maybe even private actors such as the Nature Conservancy.
  1. Heal the marsh-if grass holds the mud in place, then grass we must grow. Professor Houck uses a farming analogy-one in which Louisianans would essentially become "land farmers".
  1. Quit making it worse-dredging and filling for canals and subdivisions is the enemy. As we said above, prevention is cheaper than mitigation.
  1. Make room for Nature-consolidate human development within protected areas to create room for natural restoration to work.
  1. Dare to think retreat-Houck advocates completely removing residential development from threatened areas, through buyouts. He makes the argument that businesses can be sustained, however.
  1. Global warming is real-Professor Houck suggests denial here just makes the problem much, much worse.

We have already seen the consequences of our desire to develop every inch of shoreline, and not just in Louisiana, but all along the Gulf Coast. And we already are beginning to understand that this is truly a national problem.

But if we hope to keep South Louisiana as a functioning economy or even as an above water piece of real estate, we better start talking about national solutions that help Nature’s solutions.

Originally posted to fake consultant on Sun Mar 04, 2007 at 12:00 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What about rising sea levels (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    trashablanca, fake consultant

    and the attendant rise of surge levels during storms (not to mentions increasingly severe storms)?

    Planting grass to retain the mud doesn't add height to a mudbank, and if the mudbank is to be submerged in 10-40 years, what's the point?

    Other sea-level cities like Galveston may be able to construct levees high enough to save them, but it's doubtful that NOLA can, because (as mentioned above), the levees are built on mud and the mud underneath, instead of compressing, simple oozes away.

    Long-term, the cost of saving NOLA will be enormous, ongoing, and frankly not worth it.

    I say float historic and necessary sections of the city on a slab of concrete constantly raised by pumping mud underneath it, and let the rest go.  

    Dump the cheerleader; save the world.

    by Bob Love on Sun Mar 04, 2007 at 12:14:47 AM PST

  •  See it for yourself (4+ / 0-)

    Houck and others were warning of this long before Katrina

    To think is easy. To act is difficult. To act as one thinks is the most difficult of all -Goethe

    by commonscribe on Sun Mar 04, 2007 at 04:53:30 AM PST

  •  WPA/Marshall Plan (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    epppie

    NT

  •  There's a series of articles ... (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bensdad, peraspera, vcmvo2, chigh, epppie

    ... in the Times-Picayune, first one is in today's edition, that says we have 10 years maximum to solve this problem.

    And to folks who think NOLA is a local problem, it has this to say:

    The entire nation would reel from the losses. The state's coastal wetlands, the largest in the continental United States, nourish huge industries that serve all Americans, not just residents of southeastern Louisiana. Twenty-seven percent of America's oil and 30 percent of its gas travels through the state's coast, serving half of the nation's refinery capacity, an infrastructure that few other states would welcome and that would take years to relocate. Ports along the Mississippi River, including the giant Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana in LaPlace, handle 56 percent of the nation's grain shipments. And the estuaries now rapidly turning to open water produce half of the nation's wild shrimp crop and about a third of its oysters and blue claw crabs. Studies show destruction of the wetlands protecting the infrastructure serving those industries would put $103 billion in assets at risk.

    We need leadership badly.  And we have so little time.

    •  Iraq Costs (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bensdad, Nightprowlkitty, epppie

      Compared to what Iraq is costing this country, saving the Gulf Coast is a drop in the bucket.  The coastal articles written by Bob Marshall (sports journalist)will be a great series, as is all of the Katrina work he has produced.  Instead of a Bush NOLA Extensive Government Experimental Laboratory, can we make our misfortune an exericise in fixing what is wrong with this country?

      •  Strange ... (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        vcmvo2, goverup1, chigh, epppie

        ... first Keith Olberman and now Bob Marshall.  Well I guess that the qualities of good sportsmanship are not so different than that of being a good citizen.

        I agree ... we have such opportunities now, ones that we won't have much longer.  They must be seized.  We have to get rid of Bush and his Republicronies who are heading all the federal agencies that should be focusing on real solutions to the problems ailing our country.

      •  i disagree... (0+ / 0-)

        ...resettling 30 million americans (more or less the gulf coast population) at $40,000 each is $1.2 trillion. the assessed value of florida real estate is $1.6 trillion, as i mentioned above.

        that's a $3 trillion loss.

        that number does not include resettling the atlantic and pacific coasts.

    •  i suspect those numbers are low. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Nightprowlkitty

      just look at the cost of katrina. we're at $100 billion plus already, and we haven't had to replace a lot of industrial infrasturcture.

      i looked at florida in a similar light. imagine 7 million households needing a new home at...oh...$40,000 each. $280 billion for fema trailers?

      this one is gonna be real bad if we don't act fast.

  •  Statistics (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    epppie

    Sports journalists are all about facts and scores.  Very hard to spin.

  •  Thanks for the diary and our mismanagement... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, epppie, fake consultant

    of the rivers has been a huge cause of a lot of the problems down there even before the hurricane hit. Your diary does a great job of pointing that out and how the solutions are complicated if anyone actually wants to solve them long term. We've run into some similar things here in St. Louis with mismanagement of levees and people building in places that they should not, and that should just be flood lands. You protect one place that was meant to flood, and you make other places that were not flood instead as we found out all too well when we had the floods here in the 90's. They've done a lousy job of managing the natural flood lands in the south and with not letting nature do it's thing. When you try to mess with nature instead of working with it, inevitably nature wins out. It's just a damned shame we've learned this the hard way too often and at the expense of lives in New Orleans case. Glad to see the diary rescued and thanks for the work.

  •  Nice discussion of geological processes (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, fake consultant

    Possibly it was in the original article, but in case not, it's worth noting another process at work in the Gulf:  land susidence due to compacting sediments.  Over time, and as new sediments are laid down, pressure on underlying layers squeezes water from the loose sediments, gradually compacting them until they solidify as mudstone, shale and other rocks.

  •  New Orleans can and should be saved... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant

    ...but that requires leadership, a nationwide commitment, Dutch engineers, and the abandonment of our involvement in a civil war in the middle east.

    "I am my brother's keeper. I am a Democrat." -- That's your slogan, Democrats.

    by Bensdad on Sun Mar 04, 2007 at 09:18:21 PM PST

  •  I wonder if levees can be built on pilings? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant

    I'm not saying that levees are the answer - I would think that tidal zones and such are, but couldn't stronger and lasting levees and dikes be builit using pilings?

    Would you consider crossposting this at progressive historians?

  •  I loved this diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PaintyKat, fake consultant

    It is very informative - love the links! But it is also hopeful. Prof.Houck has a good plan I hope it gets the proper attention. I'm not sure who would take this to the next level.

    Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind. John F. Kennedy

    by vcmvo2 on Sun Mar 04, 2007 at 09:18:43 PM PST

    •  that's where it gets tough... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      vcmvo2

      ...it starts at the presidential level, but the state's government and congressional delegation need to be on board, and a compact will need to be created amongst the river states.

      as the professor mentions, there is little incentive for louisiana government to go along when soooo much "hustle for votes money" can be distributed under the present system.

  •  "Katrina changed everything." Bush's nonreaction (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant

    to Katrina is shocking evidence of his manipulation of 9/11 for purely political purposes--- and of his obscene waste of national resources in channeling man/womanpower, billions of dollars and precious time toward the debacle of Iraq rather than toward the incredibly important national problem that is post-Katrina New Orleans/Louisiana.  

    Have you ever heard Bush say "9/11 changed everything" and then use that notion to justify pulling out all the stops and throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the problem to try to fix it?  Of course not.  Bush doesn't give two shits about the United States of America, or about the American citizens of Louisiana and that part of the coast.  

    This is an excellent diary that deserves to be frontpaged.  It is an antidote to the cruel stupidity and greed that passes for domestic policy in our current White House.

    •  Whoops-- I mean "have you ever heard Bush say (0+ / 0-)

      "Katrina changed everything"...

      Ah well, excited typing will do one in every time.

    •  ironically... (0+ / 0-)

      ...the very same political beneficiaries of iraq-particularly halliburton and its former kbr division-could have cleaned up, literally and financially (and some are), a la iraq, with less profit lost to security expenses.

      if i was ceo at kbr i'd be dying to do katrina reconstruction, full speed ahead, and 15% to me for the trouble.

      where's the lobbyists when you need 'em?

  •  One issue missing is how what development is done (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant

    is built.

    There are major cities that exist in lowlands.  Amsterdam and Vienna come to mind.  So do many Southeast Asian cities.  But, you have to build with the expectation that massive winds and high floods will happen and perhaps endure for weeks.  If you live in a swamp, you either have to build on engineered stilts or build disposable structures.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" -- Voltaire

    by ohwilleke on Mon Mar 05, 2007 at 08:29:58 AM PST

    •  the professor suggests... (0+ / 0-)

      ...that you can develop "protected areas", with preidentified floodplains where you allow the water to not just flood, but to build land in the process.

      in this particular case, go back and look at the google maps, and you see the sinking basin, with the cities on land to the north, just below nola.

      so basically, you could defend the dry areas within that boundary, while buying out residences in places like delacroix, and "build the basin" with silt deposits created by cutting into the existing levees and allowing natural flow.

      business is allowed to operate with the understanding there will be no taxpayer bailouts in the future-take a buyout now, or take your chances.

      this allows the basin to become a more effective "horizontal levee" and increases protection for the cities above the boundary.

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