LSU and Tulane Awarded $22 Million for Plan to Save Lower Mississippi River Delta

November 01, 2023

Researchers at LSU and Tulane University have been awarded $22 million by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to lead a 15-member consortium that will chart a new course for the future of the fragile Lower Mississippi River Delta.

Placeholder Image

The LSU-Tulane MissDelta project will study and support the disappearing region where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, also known as the Birdfoot. The area is of critical importance to U.S. commerce, energy, wildlife and fisheries, as well as the people who live there.

The region where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico is crucial for U.S. commerce, energy, wildlife and fisheries and the people who live there, but it’s also one of the most vulnerable coastal areas in the world. Recent research shows the lower reaches of the delta retreating both above and below water. The river is redirecting its flows to the east and west, which poses critical challenges to navigation and implications for water management, including saltwater intrusions.

Placeholder Image

Samuel Bentley, professor and Billy and Ann Harrison Chair in Sedimentary Geology in the LSU College of Science is co-lead on the newly funded $22 million MissDelta project focused on the Louisiana Birdfoot region and LSU lead on the $3.8 million Offshore Analysis of Seafloor Instability and Sediments, or OASIS, project focused on the Mississippi River Delta Front with support from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM.

The Mississippi River Delta Transition Initiative, or MissDelta, as the consortium is known, will include a team of 38 investigators working with the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program. The group will begin engaging stakeholders this year as they work to project the evolution of the disappearing delta through the year 2100 should nothing be done to forestall its erosion or counter threats from increasingly intense hurricanes, rising seas, ground subsidence, diminishing river sediment, coastal dead zones, navigation channel changes and growing maintenance costs.

“Preserving the fragile Lower Mississippi River Delta is not just a mission; it’s an imperative for our future,” said Bren Haase, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is a key consortium partner along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local communities and industries. “Together, we’ll navigate the challenges of sea-level rise, erosion and shifting river dynamics, forging a sustainable path forward for future generations.”

The consortium will spend most of the five-year initiative testing alternative scenarios and solutions to increase the sustainability of the ecosystem and the economy that relies on it. Investigators will work in concert with agencies and stakeholders to identify critical issues affecting people and industries within the delta. They will then develop plans and predictive modeling strategies for the future of the delta under a range of climate and sea-level scenarios and pass along recommendations to decision-makers.

“This is about developing a shared vision for our coastal future in Louisiana and the northern Gulf Coast,” said Samuel Bentley, consortium co-lead and endowed professor in Louisiana State University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics. “We’re moving into a brave new world of more science-based, proactive management of the river by a more diverse and culturally anchored research community than ever before.”

“The project is long enough, the resources are significant enough, the team is comprehensive enough and the methodology is rigorous enough that we can pursue a strategy of not just forecasting the future, but also test scenarios with the natural systems and socio-economic models to trial solutions working in partnership with decision-makers,” said Mead Allison, consortium co-lead and chair of Tulane University’s Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering.

Besides LSU and Tulane, the consortium includes six historically Black colleges and universities in Louisiana and Mississippi—Southern University of Baton Rouge, Xavier University of New Orleans, Jackson State University, Grambling State University, Dillard University and Alcorn State University—as well as the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Central Florida, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, the Water Institute of the Gulf and the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

Placeholder Image

Tulane University co-lead on MissDelta is Mead Allison, chair of Tulane’s Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering.

A major portion of the funding from the National Academies will go toward workforce development and diversity. Universities in the consortium will work with students in middle and high schools to increase the number of persons from underrepresented groups participating in coastal research. They will create a robust mentoring network that supports students and teachers and advance opportunities for experiential learning to deepen understanding and broaden science identities. They will organize field trips and work in labs to create a more diverse technical workforce that also encourages the best and brightest to remain in the Gulf region.

“We’re proud to partner with five other Louisiana and Mississippi HBCUs and all members of the MissDelta consortium,” said Michael Stubblefield, vice chancellor for research and strategic initiatives at Southern University, which signed the A&M Agenda with LSU last year to increase university collaboration and community impact. “MissDelta will promote a more diverse technical workforce and form a blueprint for how we enact positive change in our management of land and water, which has phenomenal impact in our communities and on the environment.”

Placeholder Image

This summer, Samuel Bentley, professor and Billy and Ann Harrison Chair in Sedimentary Geology in the LSU College of Science and co-lead on the MissDelta project, brought research students on the first informal MissDelta sample collection effort. D’Metrie King, center, is a Southern University pre-med/biology senior; Nathan Figueredo on the left and Nikki Du on the right are LSU PhD students in geology and oceanography, respectively.

Degradation of the delta is thought to be caused by drastic reductions in sediment due to upstream release into shallow coastal bays. This has unstudied implications for water quality and food webs and is linked to wetland loss, erosional rollback of the delta front and increased need for dredging for navigation. The consortium’s predictive capacity will help decision-makers understand how to lessen these and other negative impacts, including future saltwater intrusions during droughts.

“A sustainable Mississippi River Delta is critical for both the region and the nation,” said Colonel Cullen A. Jones, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans district. “We look forward to the insight and contributions of the consortium as we collectively strive to identify the best long-term management approach for the river.”