Monday, May 16, 2011

Casting pearls before Darwin

A week ago, some nihilist in New Orleans wrote the following on Twitter:

"Morganza stays closed, LSU might flood. Morganza opens, oyster beds might die. I know what I'd prefer. Damn, I'm mean.

As Lisa Loopner might have said three or so decades ago, "That's so funny, I forgot to laugh."

But it's Louisiana, so you know that the ability to eat fresh oysters is more important than pedestrian fare such as higher education, the economy or even survival itself -- if LSU and Baton Rouge went under the muddy waters, you know New Orleans would, too.

essay by Ivor van Heerden on the New Orleans news site, The Lens, really didn't surprise, shock, dismay or enrage me at all. And it shouldn't shock you that LSU fired van Heerden more than a year ago amid speculation it feared the professor's criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would cost the university serious federal money.

What LSU didn't see coming was the loss of
lots more state money at the hands of Louisiana politicians, who value just about everything more than higher education.

So consider the following and reflect that natural selection
isn't just a matter of evolutionary biology. It's a matter of anthropology, too.
Denied an annual dose of sedimentation, coastal wetlands are shriveling. Thousands of square miles have been lost, a problem accelerated by the oil industry as it sliced and diced the coast with canals that invite vegetation-killing salt water.

In the last 30 years there have been calls — first by academics and concerned citizens, more recently by politicians — to set the river free … well, parts of it anyway. The idea is to mimic nature and build new land or at least sustain existing land. This is achieved by cutting “diversions” in the levee walls and letting the muddy water spill out over the surrounding wetlands. An alternative is to use siphons that suck water from the river to the lower wetland side. A number of diversions and siphons have been constructed – notably those at Davis Pond, pictured on The Lens’ home page, and Caernarvon – and have been acclaimed as the beginning of the way forward.

A test run with a different purpose in mind was prompted last year when the deepwater blowout in BP’s Macondo tract threatened to invade Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and coat them with oil. Scientists contacted the Governor’s Office and pushed successfully for the continuous operation of all diversions and siphons. The concept was that the lighter fresh water would act to flush out the oily salt water, and there is ample evidence that it had an impact.

Small wonder, then, that Louisiana is begging for the billions that will be needed – from Congress, or perhaps, the eventual settlement with BP – to create vastly more diversions and siphons in a truly serious campaign to rebuild the coast.

The unusually high and dangerous spring floods of 2011 present a glorious opportunity to demonstrate not only the land-building power of re-sedimentation, but our own resolve to get serious about coastal restoration. But are the diversions and siphons wide open? They are shut tight. Why?

It seems there is another power almost as mighty as the Mississippi: the power of special interests in Louisiana politics – in this case the oyster business. It appears to be a force sufficient to scare Baton Rouge into a state of paralysis that must be causing the rest of America to question the sincerity of our lamentations about land loss and coastal erosion. Why give billions more to a state that won’t work with the coastal-restoration infrastructure already in place?

IT TOOK an asteroid to do in the dinosaurs. Apparently, all it takes to doom Louisiana is an oyster . . . and a culture that's too short-sighted and dysfunctional to survive.

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