Despite thousands of stories about the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, one important aspect largely has gone unreported in the media: the historic and massive degradation and loss of Louisiana’s protective coastal wetlands will magnify both the ecological and economic damage from the spill. This extraordinary loss of productive wetlands, which began in the 1930s and represents an area larger than the entire state of Delaware, also leaves Louisiana coastal communities and industries even more vulnerable to future hurricanes.
In fashioning a response to the unfolding environmental catastrophe, the bar must be set high: no government regulation or reorganization, no new oil industry pledge, no technology fix, can be regarded as a serious response if it is not accompanied by a determined, aggressive plan to rebuild Louisiana’s protective coastal landscape. Why? Because no solution will have lasting effect if we don’t fix the beating heart of the Gulf: its coastal ecosystem, centered in the vast delta of the Mississippi River.
Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, our nation is long overdue in accepting its moral responsibility to save the businesses, fisheries, homes and wildlife of the region. To do so, we must first understand what went wrong—not just with our management of offshore drilling—but also with our management of the natural systems that protect and sustain the coastal region.
There are two major reasons that coastal Louisiana’s wetlands are sinking underwater.
First, since 1927, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has managed the Mississippi River to facilitate the national goals of flood control and navigation. Extensive levees prevent the river’s sediments from building up the wetlands, as they did for millennia.
Second, thousands of miles of canals have been dredged, criss-crossing the wetlands, to support oil and gas industry pipelines and the movement of workers and equipment. These canals allow salt water infiltration, which degrades essential freshwater marsh and cypress forests.
Those two factors have contributed to the collapse of the Mississippi River Delta ecosystem by disrupting Mother Nature’s time-tested processes for building new land. It has resulted in the loss of 2,300 of its 7,000 square miles of marsh and cypress swamp forests. This land loss has been occurring during the last 80 years at a pace that is hard to see in any given year, but it is relentless. This deterioration has led to the increasing vulnerability of coastal Louisiana to any kind of stress, including oil spills, hurricanes and climate change.
To their credit, both Congress and the Obama administration now recognize this critical problem:
- In 2007, Congress authorized the Louisiana Coastal Area restoration program, which authorizes implementation of several near-term restoration projects.
- Last year, the Obama Administration appointed an interagency task force to address this crisis, led by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Management and Budget. The Task Force has improved inter-agency coordination, recommended speeding up certain projects and recognized the need for developing a new management structure to avoid bureaucratic delays in restoration.
- President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal calls for Congress to provide more than $40 million for coastal restoration. It is a small down payment, but even that amount faces an uncertain appropriations process.
However, once the oil spill is under control, much more needs to be done to accelerate restoration of this once-vital deltaic ecosystem. Such a program is a moral and an environmental imperative. But it is also a smart economic investment since long-term sustainability of the navigation and flood control systems, the energy industry and Gulf fisheries is feasible only with restoration. As a bonus, it also would create thousands of good jobs in a region that is facing major economic challenges. In addition to action on the Administration’s recommendations, the program should include:
- Completion within a three-to-five-year period of all of the near-term restoration projects that Congress already has approved.
- Design and construction of large-scale diversions that would redirect virtually all of the sediments of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers into this sediment-starved Mississippi River Delta system within 10 years.
- Systematic closure of unused canals.
Since this accelerated restoration program would cost $1 billion to $2 billion per year for the next 10 years, the question is: how do we pay for it? The only fair and practical answer is that this cost should be paid by the primary beneficiaries of the current delta management system: the federal government and the oil and gas industry.
Over many decades, Gulf Coast development has generated tens of billions of dollars in revenues for the federal government. Yet, incredibly, only miniscule amounts of such revenues are currently dedicated to helping rebuild this world-class coastal ecosystem. That must change, because there is no time to waste in repaying our debt to coastal Louisiana’s wetlands. The Atlantic Ocean’s 2010 hurricane season begins June 1st.
Jim Tripp is Senior Counsel for Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the Louisiana Governor’s Commission on Coastal Restoration & Conservation. He has worked on restoring coastal Louisiana wetlands for more than three decades.
Elgie Holstein directs federal strategy for Environmental Defense Fund’s Land, Water and Wildlife program and is coordinating EDF’s oil spill response. He previously served as Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget for Natural Resources, Energy and Science.