Monday, February 22, 2010

Louisiana is Sinking into the Gulf - Why Build Levees?

(image "submitted" courtesy of houmatoday)

From the desk of Steffen Schmidt, Professor of Coastal Policy.

The article tells us that the new levees being built will be tested by the sinking land and the slow absorption of this area by the Gulf of Mexico. It also points out that some of these (the so-called Morganza levees) are being built in "areas devastated by coastal erosion." Read the whole article here -

The incredible story is that these "Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane-protection system" will actually be built in nearly open water (see photograph).

As a policy and coastal scientist i can vouch for the fact that this does not bother any of the funding agencies or the contractors building these levees. Remember they can mark it down as "hurricane protection" others can chalk it up to "shovel (barge?) ready economic stimulus activity." After all people are working and money is flowing!

Who cares that it is totally ridiculous to build such structures in an area that is already under water and is not going anywhere except down. There is nothing long term to protect because this is holding back the sea but not like Holland does. It's building a bunch of breachable dikes basically into the Gulf!

This is a perfect example of where we need to direct any funding to voluntary relocation and structural "retreat" of whatever facilities might be protected by this ridiculous construction pork.

Why voluntary?

Because in the United States "taking" people's property is no longer acceptable politically.

So, let them make the decision - stay or move and we will co-pay part of your relocation to real solid, higher, and dry land.

BUT, we will NOT spend billions of dollars in the long run to try and hold back the Caribbean Sea/Gulf of Mexico to protect your private property. If YOU want to try and dike your property feel free to do so.

The problem is the same as with the Wall Street's failed banks and high risk real estate companies.

You take a risk but it's not a BIG risk because if things go wrong the taxpayers of the Bayou, of the State of Louisiana, and of the United States will come and bail you out.

That produces an environment in which there are no incentives for people to make rational coastal decision. The system is structured for maximum risky behavior.

The new coastal paradigm which would lead to sustainable coastal behavior is this - "You take the Risk."

That also means that taxpayers can no longer assume the insurance risk for people building in high danger coastal zones. If private insurance does not want to take the risk then sure the taxpayers of the United States or of afflicted states cannot be expected take that risk anymore.

I say anymore because when we were Rock N' Rolling along with a surplus economy and money to burn we could renourish, insure, and otherwise take away most of the risk from coastal activities.

In 2010 the US government and most states are broke (see the National Governors Association Meeting of Feb 2010 for more information). That is also true of most other countries around the world who are implementing similar unsustainable coastal policies and not adopting a "holistic" and coexistential approach (humans coexisting not fighting the natural forces).

The future does not look promising in the short term for spending oodles of more public money in the US or in most countries to do a lot of expensive armoring and hugely expensive property and structure protection.

However we will be targeting resources, science and planning to:

1. Protect vital "national security" critical infrastructure. For example Port Everglades, Florida (Ft. Lauderdale) which would be totally exposed to storm surge without the barrier island and beaches of John Lloyd State Park. Also, the Defense Department has a report about the national security risks of rising sea levels which suggests some very substantial need for relocating rail, refineries, ports, power plants and other facilities vital for the future of the United States.

2. To restore and protect valuable ecosystems which are a national treasure and an economic treasure. For example reefs and sea life need to make more robust as tourist attractions, sources of food, and as natural barriers to storms.

In regard to these two is where most of us come into the picture as coastal policy makers, educators, lobbyists, planners and scientists.

This case in Louisiana is a good example of where NOT to target money.

We might as well throw it off the stern of a shrimp boat as it sails out into the Gulf!

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