Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Too Big to Fail: Gulf Coast Wetlands

The nation mourned when 11 people were lost in the explosion and collapse of a BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.  Then news came that these tragic losses were not the end of the story.  They were the beginning.  Oil was leaking from the 5,000 feet below where the Deepwater Horizon had been located 50 miles from the Louisiana coastline.  The estimates of the amount of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico have grown in succeeding days as an environmental and economic disaster of unknown proportions and it rolls relentlessly towards Louisiana’s coast.  Predicted changes in wind are likely to send the oil to other portions of the Gulf coastline.  The oil threatens wetlands and wildlife as well as the Gulf’s commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism and shipping to and from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

What happens next is dependent on a number of factors.  BP is trying to stop the flow of oil, which may take days or weeks depending on which strategy is successful.  The Gulf seas have been rough hampering efforts to contain the spill.  The wind is likely to change direction and that will dictate where the oil goes.  Rising water in the Mississippi River may play a role.  Spring storms are common.  Dispersants to spread the oil, booms to protect the shoreline and hundreds of volunteers working with governments and businesses will affect the outcome. 

This is uncharted territory and predictions of what will happen are just speculation.  There is just not enough information to know. 

But there is consensus around the importance of the wetlands.  Many news stories over the past week have highlighted the concerns that residents along the coast share.  The wetlands of coastal Louisiana are essential to protecting cities and towns from hurricanes.  They support the coastal fisheries.  They have shaped local coastal cultures and held communities together for generations.

They are too big to fail.

These coastal systems are already endangered.  Excess nutrients from agricultural lands upstream, sediment starvation downstream, navigation and oil exploration canals sending seawater inland and other changes have altered the coast.  Wetlands are subsiding and disappearing.  It is not clear how resilient the wetlands and wildlife of coastal Louisiana will be when the oil comes ashore.  It seems certain some will.  Maybe a lot.  Or it will get redirected to other parts of the Gulf Coast possibly reaching as far as the fragile coral reefs on the Florida coastline.

I hope that BP is successful in its heroic efforts to stop the flow of oil.  I hope everyone working hard to protect the resources and livelihoods of coastal residents—those with feet, fins and feathers—stay safe.  I hope that the potential damage is minimized and mitigated quickly.  But I don’t know what will happen.  No one can.

‘Adaptive management’ has been a buzzword in wetlands restoration and mitigation for a number of years.  It is the ability to gather information about changes as they happen and revise solutions accordingly.  It’s about to be applied to the wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

NOAA is posting updates on its main webpage
NOAA Response Page
NOAA and NASA satellites tasked with monitoring Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
British Petroleum (BP) Response Page
EPA’s Webpage on Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
Gulf Coast Towns Brace as Huge Oil Slick Nears Marshes
State of Emergency Declared as Gulf Spill Oil Washes Ashore
Oil spil brings danger of devastating wetlands loss

Oil spill will impact fishing, seafood trade and wetlands from Louisiana to Florida
Oil Spill threatens gulf region’s ecosystem and fishing, tourism and shipping industries

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