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The Compleat Wetlander: Gulf Wetlands Clean-up: Storms on the Horizon

      “We need to understand that the environment and our 
      lifestyle and our communities and the businesses that
      flourish down here must work together.”

                   –Town Hall Participant, Houma, Louisiana,
                     Administration’s Long Term Recovery Plan

In July 2010 the Deep Water Horizon spill was capped and oil stopped flowing into the Gulf.  But the clean-up had just begun.  It will continue for years. Even if human efforts diminish over time, natural processes will continue the recovery.  However, the path of recovery and the ultimate outcome is unknown.

At the end of September the Administration released a recovery plan titled: “America’s Gulf Coast:  Long Term Recovery Plan after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill”

The plan identified five major areas of activity that are critical to recovery of the Gulf region and provided a strategy for moving forward.  The five major areas are listed below.

   •   A Proposal to Congress to Dedicate Clean Water Act Civil Penalties to the Gulf
   •   Long‐Term Ecosystem Restoration
   •   Health and Human Services Recovery
   •   Economic Recovery
   •   Nonprofit Sector Recovery

The plan recommends that Congress create a Gulf Coast Recovery Council to oversee the recovery efforts.  In the interim the Administration has created a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Task Force to coordinate restoration activities in the Gulf region.

Following release of the report, there have been a number of reports and press articles about current and future recovery efforts and many of these address the wetlands of the Gulf.

Problems for Gulf Coast wetlands are not new.  Oil from the Deepwater Horizon is only one of many human induced changes that threaten wetlands and wildlife along the Gulf Coast.

The combined effects of flood control structures, canals and pollution have accelerated the natural fluctuations of sediment loss, compaction, and erosion leading to the loss of wetlands to the sea at an alarming rate.

What’s really going to destroy the Gulf
In addition to these, climate change, particularly increased storm severity and sea level rise, are likely to create additional challenges.

U.S. Gulf Coast Faces $350 Billion in Climate Damage by 2030, Study Shows

And as we’ve seen in the months following the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill:  what hurts and damages the environment, threatens health, safety and livelihoods of people as well.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the number and magnitude of threats to the Gulf Coast because the threats are large and solutions will require difficult and unpopular choices.  Coastal areas will continue to lose ground to the sea.  The cost of trying to maintain coastal infrastructure is likely to become unsustainable, forcing homes and communities to be abandoned or relocated.  Changes to wildlife populations and fisheries may place additional burdens on local economies.

But there may also be unanticipated gains.  The warm climate of the Gulf will support the growth of organisms that will aid the clean-up and recovery effort.  Changes in agriculture upstream could drastically reduce the size of the dead zone.  Ultimately, estimates of future losses are only estimates and the reality may be brighter than anticipated.

Using the best possible science will be critical to informing good decision-making.  It is by no means a given that will happen.  Following the Exxon Valdez, scientific information about negative impacts to wildlife was withheld due to concerns about litigation. 

The Deepwater Oil Spill: Coastal Wetland and Wildlife Impacts and Response: (see Science and Litigation p. 22)

It is also human nature to reject news that does not support desired outcomes.  Scientific research is no exception.  There will be uncertainty over whether specific strategies will work and this can lead to gridlock and inaction.

The way forward is to find strategies that support restoration of the environment hand in hand with restoration of coastal communities. If it can be achieved in the Gulf — it can be achieved elsewhere as well.

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