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BP Restoration Opportunities Slipping Away in the Gulf

Restoration in the Gulf offers a huge opportunity to address an ongoing coastal wetland catastrophe while protecting key oil infrastructure and shielding New Orleans from storm damage.  As Louisiana and other Gulf states develop restoration projects for the first $1 billion of BP oil spill money, State and Federal Trustees will hopefully seize the opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous benefits from strategic use of restoration funds.   These benefits include wildlife and fish habitat, storm surge protection, and flood mitigation to name a few.

Louisiana has lost a fourth of its coastal wetlands and the benefits they provide to past oil exploration canals, subsidence related to past oil pumping, and to a system of Mississippi River levees that denied fresh water and sediment needed to maintain the wetlands.  Yet, the remaining 6,000 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands still offer the lion’s share of fish rearing and certain wildlife functions for the entire Gulf region.  Over 40% of U.S. wetlands occur in the Mississippi Delta area, but since the 1930’s, these wetlands have receded 20 to 30 miles.  Each mile and a half of this ongoing wetland loss to open water adds another foot of storm surge threat to the city and to the Delta’s oil pipe infrastructure.  The tens of billions of dollars potential restoration benefits related to fish and wildlife habitat are overshadowed by the much larger economic benefits coastal wetlands provide protecting a major city from storm surges and protecting the nation’s oil pipe infrastructure.

Yet, the “shovel ready” project lists drafted by Louisiana would spend about half of the initial $1 billion from BP on pumping sand onto existing islands and creating new ones where past storms have washed the sand away.  These proposed projects aim to protect a couple thousand acres of wetlands behind the islands receiving the sand and restore a few hundred wetland acres.  This modest wetland restoration roughly equals the Mississippi’s Delta coastal wetland losses that occur every month.

Louisiana’s longer term ideas for restoration funding include construction of wetlands and stream buffers to treat Midwestern farm nutrients entering the Mississippi drainage.   The Midwestern projects’ aim to reduce nutrient loads in the Mississippi River, thereby decreasing the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf.  These wetland projects provide local wildlife benefits to bird watchers and hunters that might cover most of their several billion dollars of acquisition and construction costs, but their benefits from reducing the Dead Zone fall far short of the hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits from saving Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  Farm programs provide billions of dollars of conservation funding each year to address agricultural runoff, which may offer a better alternative for treating nutrients from Midwestern farms than using oil spill money.

Project lists for BP oil spill funding need to include restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  This could be accomplished by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the Delta, as described by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.  Rarely do the most urgent wildlife and ecosystem needs merge so completely with our energy needs and our needs to protect people and their homes and businesses.

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Clayton Ogg is the Director, Conservation Economics & Finance for Defenders of Wildlife. Clay directs some of Defenders’ work on incentives to enhance ecosystems and prevent harm. This includes identifying incentive programs that currently work well as well as analysis of ways to improve agriculture programs and other programs to achieve measurable ecosystem outcomes.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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