On Sunday, Channel 5/KPIX-TV political reporter Phil Matier asked me if the Gulf Coast oil spill will be “President Obama’s Katrina.” That depends on what the president and Congress do next. The disaster's vivid projection by the media into every home, workplace, and public space in the country presents a unique opportunity for the president and Congress to demonstrate leadership on two fronts:
- restoring immediately the wetlands that protect so many people, livelihoods, economies and wildlife
- taking bold, decisive steps to move our country away from fossil fuel dependence that fouls our water and air and sends money overseas
As oil continues to seep towards the Gulf coast, a huge priority must be placed on protecting and restoring the area's most valuable asset, the wetlands. The wetlands of the area are what hold the ecosystem together, and without them, much of the area's islands and protective shore will be lost to sea. This exposes the people of New Orleans to greater risks from hurricane damage, and undermines the fabric of life that supports birdlife and seafood, including half of the nation's shrimp, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40 percent of oysters. This is a major body blow to the Gulf’s fishermen, who are leading on innovative programs to fish sustainably. Fishing has been placed on hold in the area, and no one knows for how long. And now the valuable properties along Florida's prized beaches are also at risk.
The tragedy holds a number of lessons for California. First, we need to prioritize restoring the Bay-Delta ecosystem that provides water for millions of California families, farmers and fishermen and critical habitat for hundreds of species of birds, fish and mammals. Only 10,000 acres of the original 350,000 tidal marsh acres remain in the Delta and Suisun Bay system. Chinook salmon and other fish are rapidly dwindling, leaving thousands of fishermen out of work. This is a warning signal that something is seriously out of balance in the ecosystem, and we shouldn’t wait for a major disaster to begin to repair it. Restoring the wetlands that historically lined the Bay-Delta system must be prioritized.
Second, the Gulf Coast oil spill catastrophe is another reminder that America must transition to clean energy. It won't happen immediately, but we've got to start now by passing a strong clean energy and climate bill. Here in California, we must stave off efforts by out-of-state oil companies to roll back our clean energy law, AB 32. Governor Schwarzenegger is to be commended for his recent decision to prevent new drilling off the Santa Barbara coastline. He recognized that the risks didn't justify the rewards.
As the nation recovers from the oil disaster and considers its energy future, California can lead by example in restoring our own Bay Delta ecosystem and in the choices we make towards a clean energy future. Now President Obama and Congress must act quickly to protect the Gulf's wetlands and the vital ecosystem services that they provide and set the nation on a course to produce clean, safe and renewable energy.