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Former Water Institute Scientist Faces Federal Indictment

Former Water Institute scientist, Ehab Meselhe, helped create the model that was used to make these CPRA maps of projected coastal land loss.

The Water Institute is a Baton Rouge-based research institution that works with the state and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on issues like land loss and river diversions. One of its former scientists is now under investigation by the FBI.

The Times Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate broke the story. WWNO’s Tegan Wendland talked with reporters Della Hasselle and Bryn Stole about the implications for coastal research.

Q: Basically, Ehab Meselhe had left the institute to go work at Tulane's River-Coastal Science and Engineering program and in the process allegedly tried to take some computer files with him. Can you walk us through what happened?

Hasselle: Sure. So Dr. Meselhe had left to go to Tulane and Kelin Hu was still working at the Water Institute, and Kelin who is accused of trying to download a file that contained what the government says is proprietary information, the Basin-Wide Model, and allegedly take it with him to bring to Dr. Meselhe at Tulane. So Kelin Hu was going to go over to Tulane to join Dr. Meselhe as well.

Q: Talk more about this model that they were allegedly trying to take - what makes it so valuable?

Stole: My understanding is it's a pretty complicated computer model that can show what would happen to the entire Mississippi River Basin in south Louisiana based on a number of projected changes. It can model the changes in vegetation and water quality, and the amount of land that may be built from sediment coming out in the river. And it's probably most importantly been used around the design and permitting for these massive diversions that the state is building, along the two points of Mississippi River, trying to use sediment flowing down the Mississippi to build new land. And it was developed over a number of years - actually starting before the Water Institute was even created in 2011. It's sort of a joint-funded initiative between the CPRA, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is a state agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is a federal agency. They funded the development of this model, and then CPRA has asked the Water Institute to continue customizing it and building it out to become a more complex and accurate model, that they use to then project what might happen in these basins based on different inputs and different changes that they could do as part of these projects.

Q: And Meselhe worked on creating and updating the model as well, right?

Stole: My understanding is that he was the lead guy. He was one of the first top scientists hired by the Water Institute. He's really one of the masterminds of the state's coastal restoration projects and he was, from the beginning, the lead on developing this model. He had been working in similar kinds of models before he even came over to the Water Institute. He had been at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before then, and so he really was, in a lot of ways, the driving force.

Q: Meselhe and Hu both obviously have lawyers now and they're asking for the indictments to be dropped - on what basis?

Hasselle: They argue that the information actually isn't proprietary at all because it was based on a state-funded contractual agreement. And it's also based on open source modelling done by Deltares, which is a Netherlands company, and they're known for open access information about saving coastal areas.

Stole: Pretty much all of the work that was ever put into building this model into updating it was paid for by state taxpayers.

Q: How are people in the coastal restoration community here in the state reacting to this story?

Stole: A lot of people are stunned and shocked. I mean, Meselhe is an extremely well-known figure. He's really a superstar in this community. And so a lot of people know him personally and are very shocked to see him facing potential federal prison time. A lot of people are also stunned by this assertion of ownership over this model, because there's this idea that a lot of people had, that this work was the overriding critical goal and that any kind of financial interests were sort of secondary to this big collaborative effort to race against time and try to save the coast.

Q: What's next in this case?

Hasselle: The trial date is set for August. We're just looking towards motions that are popping up right now in federal court. We have some ideas for follow-ups about what's happened at the Water Institute. There's been a big exodus of scientists there. So it's an interesting place to investigate.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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