Note to Editors: The full report is available at www.umces.edu/la-restore.
Colorado State University Civil Engineering Professor Chester Watson has spent decades as a civil engineer analyzing the stability of river channels, particularly the Mississippi River.
Watson is the only river engineer – and the only Colorado representative – on a national panel of biologists and other scientists that has recommended major improvements to Louisiana’s devastated marshlands in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The independent group, which received logistical support from the National Research Council and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, issued its first report last week for use by government officials and others.
Their conclusion? That reducing the rate of destruction of coastal ecosystems and repairing them would help lessen the impact of hurricane damage along Louisiana’s coast. Over the years, human activity such as building levees and oil and gas exploration has decreased fresh water and sediment flow in marsh areas, reducing plant life and allowing sediment to wash away.
That plant life is critical to the health of coastal Louisiana, which is home to 70 percent of the Mississippi River Valley’s migratory waterfowl and supplies the United States with 27 percent of its oil. The abundance of vegetation and decreased depth of water in the marsh can also mean a reduction in the height of a wall of water when a hurricane strikes.
"We need to resupply the marshes with fresh water and sediment," said Watson, who has served for several years on the National Technical Review Committee during the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study. "The information we’ve provided in our latest report should provide local, state and federal government leaders with options to maximize environmental benefits while minimizing economic costs."
The National Technical Review Committee had been working on long-term marsh restoration plans for the Louisiana coast for three years before Hurricane Katrina hit. But the severity of the damage in 2005 kicked the project into high gear. The scientists regrouped and added expertise. Last week they issued "A New Framework for Planning the Future of Coastal Louisiana after the Hurricanes of 2005" through the Center for Environmental Science at the University of Maryland. Donald Boesch, president of the center, serves as chairman of the working group.
Key among their recommendations is to integrate planning and investment and management decisions regarding ecosystem management and restoration, flood protection and navigation along the Louisiana coast.
The panel recommends creation of a joint federal-state organization to determine the priorities and a targeted engineering and science program to support it. However, the authors of the report are quick to point out that no particular agency or organization influenced their work.
"We undertook this task independently as concerned scientists and engineers, rather than under official mandate," the report states.
Even if improvements are eventually made, it may be years before the rivers reveal whether those changes have worked, Watson said.
"We’re still seeing the effects of things we’ve done to the Mississippi River 75 years ago," Watson said. "We really won’t know for 25 or 30 years how the natural system is going to adapt to what we construct today."
Watson obtained his bachelor’s from the Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, his master’s from Louisiana Tech University and his doctorate from Colorado State University. Prior to joining Colorado State as a civil engineering professor in 1990, he worked as a water engineer in private industry, most recently as principal investigator of Cottonwood Research LLC in Fort Collins.