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Ocean's 11 

Ten university programs in Louisiana, along with the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), are banding together in an unprecedented alliance to fight coastal erosion. University of New Orleans (UNO) Chancellor Gregory O'Brien says the collaborative effort will create a new coastal think tank to better advise federal and state officials on how to protect lives, property, wetlands, nature and industries vital to the state's economy.

"It's really groundbreaking," O'Brien says of the alliance, titled Coastal Restoration and Enhancement through Science and Technology (CREST). "Getting two universities to work together is hard; three is more difficult," he points out. Getting a total of 11 higher education institutions together, he continues, is a "high point" in university teamwork.

In addition to UNO and USM, the 11 signatories for the CREST program include McNeese State University, Nicholls State University, Louisiana State University, LSU Agricultural Center, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Southeastern Louisiana University, Southern University, Tulane University, and University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The $700,000 program will be administered in part by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its newly named director is Piers Chapman, who currently serves as director of the U.S. World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) at Texas A&M University. Chapman is familiar with coalition-building; WOCE involves the cooperative effort of 25 countries.

Academic institutions can be as independent and competitive as private businesses. Yet O'Brien says that collaborative projects are part of an increasing trend. Funding agencies and policymakers want to see it, he says. And so does the public.

In 1998, federal, state and local officials joined together with landowners, wetland scientists and others to approve Coast 2050, a coastal restoration strategy aimed at overcoming the fragmentation and disagreements that have marred past efforts. Teamwork among universities should be a natural building block upon Coast 2050.

The program should also appeal to college-age students. At a time when graduates are fleeing Louisiana for better-paying jobs, O'Brien says, students with degrees in environmental studies and related fields are electing to stay and help save coastal wetlands that are vanishing at a rate of up to 35 square miles a year.

Erosion of our natural coastal barriers leaves our families and property increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Business and government interests, meanwhile, are eager to show Congress we have the right science and technology for a proposed 20-year/$20 billion coastal restoration project aimed at also protecting the state's oil, gas and commercial seafood industries.

Restoring a coastal ecosystem is a delicate and complex endeavor, requiring "the latest science and best technologies," according to the CREST agreement. We strongly agree. We need well-coordinated work on navigation channels, highways, levees and other projects to avoid the harmful consequences of good intentions. For example, the state's river water diversion project at Caernarvon was supposed to restore marshlands by providing nutrients from river sediments. At the same time, it allegedly damaged oyster habitats and could cost the state millions of dollars in judgments from lawsuits brought by oyster farmers.

The CREST agreement delineates how the universities will work together with their respective partners in federal agencies toward saving the coast. How will CREST keep participating universities and individual scientists from breaking away from the coalition to "go it alone" for lucrative research grants? "Collaborative proposals," O'Brien says. He adds: "This stuff is wildly inter-disciplinary."

UNO geology and geophysics professor Denise J. Reed and environmental sociologist Shirley Laska undertook what O'Brien calls a "road show" that resulted in all 11 institutions signing up for CREST. Key benefits promised by CREST include:

· Communication with the public concerning the consequences of coastal habitat loss and what action is needed.

· Improved communication among the private sector, academia and governmental agencies.

· Improved sharing of new scientific and technological findings among government agencies and the private sector.

· Development of scientific models for predicting future coastal conditions and their consequences.

· Continual evaluation and improvement of coastal restoration techniques, with the goal of more efficient and effective projects.

CREST is not a panacea, of course. Reed acknowledges that navigating land ownership rights is a "big issue" that must be resolved by policymakers or the courts -- not scientists. "We're the consulting physicians; we're not the neurosurgeons who make the cut," O'Brien says of CREST.

Yet for this particular surgery, we need all available hands in the operating room. CREST is a welcome sign of progress on one of the most crucial issues facing our state -- and one of the most important environmental issues for the country. We need the best minds at all our universities at work on this problem; CREST deserves everyone's attention and support.

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