Categorized | Paying for Conservation

Using Nature to Restore the Gulf

A prestigious Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s new Preliminary Strategy offers a positive message for damaged Gulf Coast ecosystems.  The Task Force, which includes heads of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, eloquently confronts an ongoing ecosystem catastrophe which threatens the safety of New Orleans and the nation’s oil infrastructure, as well as crucial wildlife habitat.  With funding scarce, the Preliminary Strategy needs to focus on its proposed restoration of Mississippi River flows to efficiently achieve triple benefits:  1) restoring coastal wetlands, 2) shrinking the dead zone out in the Gulf, and 3) restoring island beaches.  Although other remedies are discussed, restoring Mississippi River sediments offers the only economically feasible solution to each of these three problems.

To its considerable credit, the Preliminary Strategy would use “natural river processes of sediment and freshwater distribution” to reverse the destruction of coastal wetlands around the Gulf.   Much of the Mississippi River and its load of sediment would be diverted back to the Delta’s coastal wetlands where it once flowed.   As reported earlier, hundreds of billions of dollars of business assets are increasingly at risk due to an ongoing loss of Delta wetlands, with 2,000 square miles of wetlands lost so far.

The use of natural river processes, described above, also will help shrink the dead zone–our second co-benefit—as well as restore the Delta’s coastal wetlands.  Levees currently direct Mississippi River flows far out into the Gulf where they contribute nutrients and sediment that cause the dead zone.  Diverting river water back into the Delta’s vast coastal wetlands offers by far the most budget smart action proposed by the Task Force.  It simultaneously restores coastal wetlands and shrinks the dead zone.  The Preliminary Strategy supports nutrient management on farms, as well, to address the dead zone, but this can draw on existing, conservation programs for farmers that already are well funded.

The Preliminary Strategy’s focus on river processes for delivering sediment also offers the only economically feasible, long term mechanism for restoring the natural flow of sand to island beaches that are disappearing in the Gulf—our third co-benefit.  Once again, nature can address a hundred years of damage caused by past manipulation of river flows.

Pumping dredge material is offered as an alternative for adding sand to islands, but pumping sand in the current Gulf system is an uphill battle.  A Louisiana proposal for restoring wetlands behind islands would spend a half billion dollars pumping sand onto islands and restore only enough wetlands to address a few weeks of coastal wetland loss.  Pumping sand to locations where recent storms removed sand offers, at best, a temporary remedy and fails to solve root causes of the problem.

The Preliminary Strategy provides a timely vision and focus for solving some extremely important human safety, economic, and wildlife problems.  Yet, one proposed action, pumping sand, is much less able to deliver results.  Money is scarce, so success will require smart use of each restoration dollar.  This means restoring river flows to secure wetland, dead zone, and island benefits all at once.

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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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