Water and related environmental resources have been crucial in the exploration, settlement, and development of the lower Mississippi River and its delta region. From the great prehistoric upstream riverfront engineering works at Poverty Point, to the mobile shell mound settlers of lower distributaries, human populations have adjusted to and transformed their deltaic environments. The City of New Orleans was settled and developed near the mouth of the Mississippi River as a port and a strategic site for access to the river and the heart of the continent. The Mississippi River system and its coastal aquifers provide natural water supplies for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and other communities. The region has an abundance and diversity of fisheries that support household and commercial livelihoods.
In addition to valuable water-related resources, the region also is subject to Mississippi River floods in spring and summer, and to Gulf of Mexico hurricanes in late summer and fall. There is a long, fascinating history of human efforts to cope with and reduce the effects of these natural hazards, ranging from pre-European inhabitants seeking areas of higher ground for sites of settlement and transportation routes, to modern-day, massive levees and drainage systems along the lower Mississippi River, other water control structures and spillways, and extensive hurricane protection structures within and across the greater New Orleans metropolitan area.
Given the prominence and persistence of natural hydrologic hazards, many early water-related studies and activities in this region focused on hydrology, hydraulics, and engineering, such as the competing studies of Mississippi River hydrology and engineering by Andrew Humphreys and
Charles Ellet in the nineteenth century. Over time, research advanced on related land, water, ecological, and socioeconomic resources—from sediment and settlements to wetlands, biodiversity, and biogeochemistry. There is an extensive research network of universities, agencies, and civil society organizations in the region that have been focusing on these complex water and environmental processes in the delta.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of the nation’s worst storm-related disasters, and in its wake there were numerous investigations and reports that offered both retrospective analyses and alternatives for better addressing risks associated with hurricanes. There was an especially strong interest in comparing New Orleans’ coastal protection approach and system to that of the Netherlands. U.S. water experts and decision makers made numerous visits to the Netherlands to assess approaches that might profitably be shared or adapted back in the United States.
It was in this setting that the Water Institute for the Gulf (Water Institute) was established in 2011 and began its operations in 2012. The Water Institute was established with seed money from the State of Louisiana and from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The Water Institute aims to provide the state of Louisiana with a central point of scientific capacity to help the state better build a variety of ecosystem restoration and hurricane protection projects. It intends to collaborate with scientists and engineers from around the world, and in doing so, to create a center of scientific excellence that will serve communities throughout the Gulf Coast and beyond. For more information on The Water Institute, its activities, and future plans see http://thewaterinstitute.org/.
The following report was authored by the National Research Council Committee on Strategic Research for Integrated Water Resources Management. The committee’s statement of task was divided into three topics: (1) common problems and challenges in lower river and deltaic systems, (2) strategic research for integrated water resources management, and (3) transferring and applying scientific knowledge from the lower Mississippi River to other deltaic regions (the report’s full statement of task is presented in Chapter 1, Box 1-1). The major sections in this Summary track these three areas as follows: the section on Common Problems and Challenges addresses topic 1 above; sections on Strategic Research for Integrated Water and Environmental Management, Science-Policy Analysis, and Research Coordination and Organizational Options address topic 2 above, and the final section on Comparative International Water Research addresses topic 3 above. First, some comments on the nature of this report’s statement of task and its main conclusions are in order.
This report’s statement of task requests the NRC committee to offer advice for setting research priorities to support integrated water resources management in lower river and deltaic systems. The report thus has a
strong science research program emphasis. Much of the advice herein is based upon the committee’s collective expert judgment, and not necessarily detailed review of specific bodies of science, or testing of hypotheses. Research directions thus are presented in the form of promising alternatives and opportunities open to the Water Institute, as opposed to conclusive or definitive science-based recommendations and organizational imperatives. This report does not identify priorities among these many opportunities, but the final chapter provides comments regarding a process for prioritization.
A central concept in this report’s statement of task—Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)—has various, sometimes contested, meanings in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere that could have a bearing on this report’s comparative dimensions. Rather than engaging these ongoing and unresolved debates, the report invokes the IWRM concept selectively with respect to specific studies and programs. For the broader purposes of this report, the study topic is rephrased as integrated water and environmental management (without capitalization or acronym).
The Water Institute’s goals to become a credible center for scientific research and advice for the lower Mississippi River, Gulf region, and beyond, will not be realized overnight. Therefore this report offers a range of recommendations that could be implemented over different time scales, ranging from near-term activities, to medium- and longer-term activities and areas of emphasis that would require years to further conceptualize and implement.
COMMON PROBLEMS AND CHALLENGES IN LARGE DELTAS
This report’s statement of task calls for identification of key challenges of integrated water and environmental management in large deltaic systems, and for identification of types of research that can contribute to meeting those challenges. This first topic also calls for identification of other large deltaic systems in the world that may provide analogues for integrated water resources management in the lower Mississippi River delta.
The introductory chapter of this report reviews the evolution and trajectory of integrated water and environmental management, including IWRM, in the United States, Europe, and developing regions of the world. The second chapter of the report then turns to Common Problems and Challenges. It begins with a perspective on Mississippi River delta issues, which led to identification of numerous “Agents of Change,” each of which has partial analogues in other major deltas of the world. These agents of change range from hydroclimatic variability to sediment transport, land development, and water management.
It is important to stress that the base case of these analogues, for present purposes, is the lower Mississippi River delta. Discussion of each agent
of change begins, not with a problematic deltaic water phenomenon in general, but rather with its manifestation and importance in the Mississippi River delta. This is followed by brief identification of recent international studies that can help identify analogues that may have relevance for the Mississippi delta.
Interdependence among agents of change, and geographic differences among deltas of the world, led to a strong sense of the importance of a broad human-environmental systems approach to integrated water management in deltaic regions. These initial investigations yielded the following observations about a systems approach to deltaic challenges and analogues:
• Research on deltaic “analogues” focuses first on a base case, which in this study is the Mississippi River delta. It then may examine specific agents of change, i.e., by constructing problem-driven partial international analogies, set within a systems framework, to help advance the theory and practice of integrated water and environmental management.
• Each of the agents of change considered in this report has received substantial scientific attention, yet potentially entails numerous unmet research needs. These individual agents of change are highly interdependent. It thus is not possible to fully explain complex problems (e.g., coastal land loss in Louisiana), through research on individual agents alone. Nor is it possible to meaningfully advance integrated water and environmental management through a reductionist approach of the sort adopted in some scientific investigations and projects, as compared with a systems approach.
• Large deltas of the world vary so greatly that international comparisons focused solely on one or a few agents of change are not likely to provide comparisons robust enough to advance the theory and practice of integrated water and environmental resources management in the Mississippi River delta.
• It therefore is important to develop and employ a “human-environmental systems approach,” grounded in the Mississippi delta base case—and to use that systems approach to seek partial analogues with other large deltas in ways that inform, inspire, and challenge integrated water and environmental management in the lower Mississippi River delta.
The remaining chapters build upon these findings by focusing on systemic research challenges and opportunities for the Water Institute.
STRATEGIC RESEARCH FOR INTEGRATED MANAGEMENT
Of the many unmet research needs and promising approaches in the Mississippi River delta and comparable deltas of the world, some will have greater priority than others. A strategic approach in this context is one that balances attention to emerging research needs with deliberation about longer-term research planning. The findings below strive to illustrate this balanced approach.
Some of the research opportunities identified below could be pursued separately, or they could be combined into a single broader study. For example, the report discusses the value of preparing a synthesis of knowledge about the Mississippi River delta; and conducting a condition of the delta assessment that would yield a baseline study for future restoration experiments. For clarity, they are presented below separately, although it would also be possible to combine them.
There is to our knowledge no synthetic overview of the current state of knowledge on integrated water and environmental management in the Mississippi River delta from which further research in the region, or comparison with other deltaic regions, could benefit. Such a synthesis of current knowledge could put forth broadly useful information as well as interpretations and hypotheses that have been tested, and that currently may be either widely accepted or controversial. Scientists in several deltas around the world—including the Rhine and Mekong—have undertaken similar types of studies.
Enormous bodies of research on the Mississippi River delta have been undertaken by many institutions. Nevertheless, there does not appear to be a comprehensive published “institutional map” of that research (i.e., a systematic diagram of delta research organizations, major programs, and archival collections). Nor does there appear to be a detailed historical assessment of how the Mississippi River delta has been compared with other deltas around the world.
• Preparation of a Mississippi River Delta Research Synthesis report offers a research opportunity for the Water Institute. This report could include an institutional map of major research institutions and programs. It would require a robust geographic definition of the delta, a historical review of Mississippi River delta research and development, and a perspective on the international context for research.
Condition of the Delta Assessment
An important requirement for better understanding and forecasting the effects of interventions (both physical actions and policies) on a system as large and complex as the lower Mississippi River delta is to establish some type of robust baseline for comparison. A research synthesis of the sort described above would indicate strengths and gaps in current knowledge. A baseline assessment ideally would fill those gaps to provide a comprehensive dataset of the state of the complex human-environmental system time that can be considered a “snapshot” of the system.
This type of assessment could also serve as a valuable scientific planning method. For example, future “without action” scenarios could be constructed to forecast how changes in the baseline may change over time, which in turn could provide a basis for forecasting effects of future interventions. The State of Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan (Master Plan) includes data and analyses that were used to build baselines and future “without action” scenarios. These could be reviewed to ensure that they have similar spatial and temporal features, and to identify opportunities to expand data collection and related analyses.
• A comprehensive state-of-the-delta baseline for data across water, landscape, and human factors has not been established. As such, this is a research gap and a research opportunity for the Water Institute and allied organizations.
• The Water Institute could provide the central motivation and coordinating effort for the promising research opportunity of developing a “condition of the delta” assessment. This ideally would be conducted with broad collaboration among stakeholders and scientists working in the delta.
Research Design for Diversions
The Louisiana 2012 Coastal Master Plan identifies many possible diversions of flows and sediment from the mainstem Mississippi River as a means to promote wetlands restoration. From antiquity to early modern times, there have been advocates for and experiments with overbank flood methods in China, India, and Europe. The Louisiana 2012 Coastal Master Plan proposes restoration projects of historical significance.
The hydrologic, geomorphic (sediment), ecologic, and socioeconomic outcomes from these diversions will have uncertainties even as projects proceed. These diversions offer the Institute an excellent opportunity to design experiments as part of the diversion projects. Results from these experiments would likely help reduce uncertainties, enable science-based
adjustments of initial diversions, and help design future diversions. Such experiments could offer opportunities to collaborate on investigations with regional scientists and other experts from the federal government, Louisiana state government, regional universities, and international scientific organizations.
An active adaptive management framework and process would help organize and guide these processes. The theory and practice of adaptive management have been interpreted and implemented in different ways. Adaptive management can take a more formal (active) form that includes model(s) and hypotheses for explicit experimentation and testing, or less formal (passive) forms. Most experts and practitioners would consider any form of adaptive management to reflect a paradigm of “learning while doing.” For purposes of this report, adaptive management involves monitoring and evaluation of outcomes from management actions that have considerable uncertainties, and subsequent adjustments and learning based on those evaluations.
The Water Institute already has engaged in some aspects of proposed diversion studies with the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). Additionally, it may be expected that extreme events and ecological surprises will occur during implementation of restoration projects, which will require rapid research responses to understand their immediate effects and collect perishable data. Similar future research opportunities for the Water Institute will entail further collaboration and agreements with the Louisiana CPRA.
• The Water Institute could identify key decision-relevant scientific uncertainties in planned diversion projects, propose building experiments into project and policy design, and contribute to scientific monitoring of results.
• Design of scientific research to support adaptive management of large-scale ecosystem restoration projects is a significant research opportunity in the Mississippi River delta context.
• As some uncertainties will unfold during the course of diversion experiments, a “quick response” research grant program for internal and external applicants could facilitate rapid collection of perishable data in the event of environmental surprises and hazards.
Long-Term Monitoring Opportunities
Long-term monitoring traditionally is conducted by government agencies. Data collection on demographics, land use, economic activity, weather, rainfall, streamflow, tides, and water quality variables are well-established, and largely uncontroversial, tasks of government because of their recognized
societal value. However, in a budget-constrained setting, commitments to long-term environmental monitoring may be reduced in some aspects and expanded in others; for example, remote sensing and citizen-science monitoring may expand new information and communication technologies.
• A research opportunity in complex deltaic systems is to help identify emerging decision-relevant variables and time scales, and then to propose cost-effective adjustments in monitoring programs, including new data sources, methods, and technologies.
Human Settlement and Occupation
In the context of water management decisions and policy, related land use processes have often been overlooked or underappreciated in planning decisions and processes, in part because of their political dimensions and other challenges. Yet it is essential that social processes and policies that influence land use change be included within the scope of research for truly integrated water and environmental management.
• There are research opportunities in the lower Mississippi River delta for analyzing land use and settlement patterns and trends, and for explaining how projects and policies influence those trends in ways that advance or constrain the paths and prospects for integrated water and environmental management.
Tectonics and Deltaic Zonation
Tectonic processes exert a major control on delta stability in the Mississippi River Delta. Since 1930, over 600 square miles of land area south of the Golden Meadows fault zone has been converted into open water habitat by slumping. Although precise fault alignments are not always clear, much of the region south of this fault zone is unstable, and land loss rates continue at a particularly rapid pace. Oil and gas and groundwater extraction contribute to land loss in this area, but tectonic structure and dynamics are the primary geophysical drivers, and as such, it is critical that tectonic stability considerations be integrated into regional water and environmental management processes.
• More detailed mapping of major geologic areas of relative stability, major land loss vulnerability, and land building potential could help guide research on diversions and coastal protection project performance.
SCIENCE-POLICY ANALYSIS: AN EMERGING RESEARCH FRONTIER
Key challenges for integrated water and environmental management include the articulation of salient research questions in a given lower river/delta system. These questions span a broad range of science and related policy disciplines and include hydrology, ecology, socioeconomic trends, policies, and governance issues; as well as the relationships, linkages, and potential trade-offs among them. Science-policy analysis, as discussed in this report, refers to at least three related lines of research. The first is scientific research in support of public policy analysis and deliberation, which is addressed throughout this report. The second involves scientific analysis of environmental policy alternatives, which is discussed in Chapter 3. A third line of research seeks clearer understanding of how scientific research is used effectively in policy processes, including topics such as decision support systems and adaptive management, which are discussed in Chapter 4.
Some deltaic regions and nations, notably the Netherlands, have undertaken a broad range of formal science-policy studies that provide partial analogues for research in the Mississippi River delta.
• There is a growing body of international research on science-policy studies of deltaic vulnerability and sustainability. At the same time, there are expanding opportunities for rigorous comparative research on science-policy programs in other regions, such as the Netherlands, for integrated water and environmental management in the Mississippi River delta.
Science-Policy Research and the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan
New infusion of funding will support Mississippi River diversions and associated (re)construction of wetlands and barrier island protection, as envisioned in the Louisiana 2012 Coastal Master Plan. These restoration plans, and associated adjustments in economic activities and human settlement, provide unique learning opportunities of global and local significance for planning and designing “soft” ecological engineering and design at the coastal margins, and for integration with “hard” engineering infrastructure and policy. Interactions among multiple projects and policies present complex scientific challenges.
• There is an excellent opportunity for the Water Institute to build a research program around multiple interacting types of restoration projects and policies.
• There are also near- and medium-term research opportunities on the integration of storm protection structures with delta restoration projects that emphasize natural or green infrastructure. This integrated approach to research could encompass and contribute to the objectives of a vigorous energy and marine transportation economy, storm risk reduction, commercial fisheries, recreational opportunities, and a healthy coastal ecosystem.
Collaborative Modeling, Negotiation, and Conflict Resolution
The scientific investigations, public meetings, and outreach that supported the Louisiana 2012 Coastal Master Plan were an impressive effort to move toward integrated water and environmental management. The Master Plan process engaged stakeholders through public hearings and workshop discussions. However, some stakeholders may not have been as fully or creatively engaged as possible in analytical modeling that led to recommendations, which may contribute to some controversies regarding Master Plan proposals. Integrated water and environmental management processes often entail collaborative modeling, negotiation theory, and conflict resolution experiments.
• The Water Institute would have an excellent opportunity to promote, and lead, more advanced scientific stakeholder engagement in joint fact finding and modeling processes. A strong contribution to research on negotiation and collaborative modeling would entail some level of commitment by the Water Institute to developing the required professional skills to create and lead collaborative modeling procedures.
The concept of “citizen science” involves participation and collaboration of members of the general public in scientific research, often as unpaid volunteers and in education programs. Such participatory efforts serve to engage and educate the public about local and regional scientific issues. Supporting and promoting active input and dialogue with citizens in the region about hurricane protection, settlement and land use issues, and ecosystem restoration is an activity where modest investment could provide many benefits.
• The design of collaborative processes that mobilize members of the public to facilitate monitoring programs is another research opportunity for the Water Institute. Part of this effort could include
a leadership role for the Water Institute in developing digital information and communications technology with citizens in the lower Mississippi River delta.
• Hosting of international citizen-science workshops also could identify innovations in other deltas that have relevance for the lower Mississippi, and ultimately help transfer knowledge to those regions.
Developing Decision Support System Tools
As indicated in the observations above, the delta faces complex decision-making problems characterized by uncertainties about alternatives, scenarios, and trade-offs among water and environmental uses. However, it also has an expanding range of creative approaches for addressing them. The Louisiana 2012 Coastal Master Plan took an important step toward addressing these types of issues through its Planning Tool. Restoration project implementation will entail broader analyses, and effective interdisciplinary communication of, complex engineering, socioeconomic, and environmental scenarios, impacts, and trade-offs. Broader analysis of these structural, nonstructural, policy, and ecological restoration alternatives would likely benefit from development of additional decision support system tools.
• Development of decision support system applications represents another science-policy research opportunity. This work initially could help support restoration project implementation, encourage integration of structural and nonstructural water and environmental management alternatives, and also encourage participatory stakeholder and citizen-science programs.
RESEARCH COORDINATION AND ORGANIZATIONAL OPTIONS
There are highly ranked universities and research laboratories conducting research in the Mississippi River delta, including Louisiana State University, Tulane University, University of New Orleans, and University of Louisiana at Lafayette. There also are federal agencies in Louisiana and the region, notably the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey, that have decades of experience in and extensive knowledge of the region, and support research programs in fields of interest to the Water Institute, such as hydrodynamic modeling and ecological restoration.
Cooperation among institutions on integrated water and environmental research has not always been as strong as might be hoped. Similarly,
despite the depth of expertise in deltaic science among the industries that operate here—notably oil and gas industries, fishing, navigation, salt mining, dredging, construction, and tourism—some industry data and expertise have not been fully available to support research to address broad human-environmental needs.
• The Water Institute will have opportunities to build working, collaborative relationships with a rich variety of research and educational institutes, and private industry—including energy exploration and development firms, fisheries, tourism, and the maritime transportation sector. Examples of these opportunities include hosting international seminars, scholar exchange, establishment of a special delta research journal, and insurance for laboratory facilities or research equipment.
Institute Organizational Options
As a new research entity, the Water Institute has an unusual opportunity to develop a research scope and agenda, organizational structure, and mode of operation unencumbered by historical constraints. As it is not part of a university or government agency, the Water Institute will require a distinctive type of organizational structure. Strategic factors to be considered by Water Institute leadership include mode of operation, incentives and expectations for staff, mechanisms for prioritization of work, optimization of competencies, and efficient organizational structure.
COMPARATIVE RESEARCH: TRANSFERRING AND APPLYING KNOWLEDGE
The Water Institute’s intent to engage in comparative international research holds much promise for improving strategic research and decisions both on the lower Mississippi and in other delta regions. Although no two complex deltas are strictly comparable, analysis of similarities and differences in research measurements, methods, and management issues can be useful. It was not possible or necessary within the scope of this study to list and describe in detail the delta systems that may be relevant to the lower Mississippi River. However, traits of the Mississippi River delta that merit or suggest comparison include hydrologic dynamics, sediment transport, economic activities, environmental hazards, management institutions, and other agents of change.
As it is developing its research programs and expertise, the Water Institute may selectively establish international research linkages with lower
river/delta regions, such as with other delta regions where collaboration seems most feasible and pertinent to the Mississippi River delta. To enhance credibility both in the region and abroad, the Water Institute may focus on building its scientific capacity in the lower Mississippi River delta, in part through strategic and focused international research.
One possibility for the Water Institute is to initially focus some of its international initiatives on inviting scientists from around the world to visit and collaborate in research activities in the lower Mississippi River delta. Building collaborative, international relationships by this means, and addressing local scientific issues, may also place it in a strong position to productively engage in research opportunities in other parts of the world. Several principles can help guide development of sustainable international scientific relationships.
• The Water Institute could define those traits that best characterize the Mississippi River delta, and begin to establish connections and comparisons with a small, diverse set of other delta regions. The Water Institute subsequently could branch out from there, as interests and staff resources permit.
• To help prioritize its own international studies and its collaborations with other delta regions, the Water Institute could develop and employ a simple framework of international research aims and methods to screen, rank, and select its international activities.
The timing of international studies also is relevant. A broad suite of interbasin comparisons could be developed over the medium to longer term, in each case building upon core research programs in the Water Institute. A good example is the 2010 study of vulnerability and sustainability of ten deltas conducted by the Delta Alliance, a collaborative international knowledge network.
• In the near term, a small set of strategic Gulf-centric deltaic comparisons may be the main type of international research on analogies that the Water Institute undertakes.
• Over the medium term, Water Institute scientists would benefit from strategic engagement in multidelta comparisons, such as the Delta Alliance’s study of vulnerability and resilience.
• In the longer term, depending upon its Mississippi River priorities and expertise, the Water Institute may be in a position to develop a small number of continuous, cooperative problem-driven and thematic research programs with other delta regions.
Examples include (1) environmental/ecosystem restoration—Rhine, Danube, Irrawaddy; (2) natural hazards mitigation—Ganges-Brahmaputra and Mekong; (3) energy industry, environment, and conflict—Niger, Yellow River, Indian Ocean, Arctic deltas; (4) sediment trapping and land loss—Mekong and Yellow; and (5) urban planning and flood risk reduction—in New Orleans, the Connecting Delta Cities program, and Pearl and Yangtze deltas.