Gulf Coast Revival?

Conservationists hope that the biggest oil disaster in U.S. history will galvanize the funding and political will to address the crisis of coastal land loss (Updated: 04-20-2011, 08-08-2011, and 4-17-2012)

  • Laura Tangley
  • Mar 15, 2011

FROM THE BOW of a boat crossing Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, everything looks more or less normal eight months after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, setting in motion the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. With the exception of an occasional BP helicopter checking out what the small craft is up to, the bay—a zone hit hard by the spill—teems with its more typical inhabitants: large flocks of laughing gulls and brown pelicans; solitary ospreys, great egrets and great blue herons; and shrimpers hauling home their day’s catch.

But as the boat pulls into Bay Jimmy, a shallow cove on the eastern flank of the bay, there are signs of trouble. Onshore, the first 10 to15 feet of the cordgrass that makes up the region’s marshes appear stunted and matted with weathered oil. “That front edge looks bad,” confirms Maura Wood, senior program manager for NWF’s Coastal Louisiana Restoration Program. If oil has killed the plants down to their roots, and they do not regenerate this spring, the land the grasses hold together will wash away quickly—“a significant loss of habitat,” says Wood. Officials estimate that during the three-month spill, oil came ashore on hundreds of miles of the state’s coastline, including thousands of acres of fragile marshes.

Even before the spill, however, this coast was in crisis. Guiding his boat back into Barataria Bay, Captain Dave Marino shakes his head as he looks out at the open water. “I’ve been coming to this bay more than 40 years, my entire life,” he says. “Those little tufts of land used to be a chain of islands. It was all solid ground.”

Statistics back Marino up: Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of coastal wetlands, the highest rate of land loss in the nation. Today the equivalent of a football field disappears every half hour. The coast is vanishing so quickly that, according to Ben Weber, NWF’s oil spill response coordinator, “an accurate map of Louisiana does not exist.”

Sheltering the largest wetland complex in the contiguous United States—3.4 million acres of marshes, swamp forest and barrier islands—Louisiana’s disappearing coastline is a national treasure. Its marshes and estuaries provide critical habitat for hundreds of bird species, including millions of migratory and overwintering waterfowl—some 70 percent of all ducks and geese that traverse the Central and Mississippi Flyways. By weight, coastal Louisiana contributes nearly a third of the commercial fish and shellfish harvested in the Lower 48, and its ports and energy infrastructure are crucial to the economy of the entire nation.

The coast also is home to some 2 million people who depend on its barrier islands and marshes to make a living and to serve as a buffer against storms. Without wetlands, this culturally diverse mix of humanity is uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters, as Hurricanes Rita and Katrina made painfully clear six years ago.

Given the severity of coastal land loss, some experts liken the impact of last year’s oil spill to a cancer patient who contracts pneumonia. Though the infectious disease can be treated with proper medication, the patient still has cancer. More optimistic observers have another perspective: The oil spill may well have accelerated wetlands loss, “but it also served as a wake-up call,” says Karla Raettig, national campaign director for NWF’s Coastal Louisiana Restoration Program. “Covered by the news media day in and day out, the disaster focused the nation’s attention on the ecological and economic importance of this region in a way that has never happened before.” Raettig and her colleagues hope that public outrage over the spill may finally generate the political will and funding to fight wetlands loss on a scale the crisis deserves.

A Tattered Coastline

To appreciate the magnitude of Louisiana’s land loss—as well as some of its major causes—it helps to get an aerial view. To a visitor looking out the window of a six-seat seaplane flying south from New Orleans, the land seems to fall apart, dissolving within a half hour into threads of greenery snaking over blue water. “When I started flying more than 20 years ago, this was all cropland,” says pilot Lyle Panepinto. He points out several long, unnaturally straight channels cutting across the water: canals dredged long ago by the oil and gas industry to accommodate ships and pipelines. Abandoned now, the canals have become “interstate highways for salt water to move inland and kill freshwater marshes,” Panepinto says.

The Mississippi River, which drains 41 percent of the continental United States, built Louisiana’s wetlands over centuries by depositing eroded soil from the nation’s heartland during annual spring floods. The coast “has always been a dynamic landscape with riverine floods, natural land subsidence and storms from the gulf leading both to land-building and loss,” says Denise Reed, a University of New Orleans geomorphologist who has studied the state’s coastal marshes and barrier islands for nearly a quarter century. “Constant adjustment among natural forces produced an ecosystem that was always changing, but that sustained itself for thousands of years.”

Today that balance has been badly disrupted by humans. Beginning as early as the 1800s, Louisiana’s residents have, understandably, been trying to protect themselves from floods by lining the banks of the Mississippi with levees. As a result, the river now runs deep into the Gulf of Mexico—where it drops its sediment load—rather than fanning out across the delta to nourish and develop new wetlands. Upstream in the Midwest, locks and dams along the river hold back even more sediment.

Compounding these problems, the coast is chopped up by thousands of miles of pipelines and navigation canals linking together oil rigs, refineries and other petroleum infrastructure. The canals speed land loss by bringing in sea water that kills salt-intolerant plants.

On The Front Lines

For many decades, the threat land loss poses to lives and livelihoods has been well recognized, particularly among those living on the front lines in coastal Louisiana. Yet until now, attempts to solve the problem have been too small, fragmented and poorly funded to make a difference. To try and break the gridlock, NWF three years ago formed a coalition with the Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society and several state and local groups. Funded by the Walton Family Fund, the partnership seeks to make restoring wetlands a national priority and to catalyze the funding to do it.

Ironically, last year’s oil spill provided a boost to the conservationists’ cause. In early June, when oil was still spewing into the gulf, NWF and its partners sent a letter to President Obama urging him to make coastal restoration an “immediate recovery need” covered by any fines assessed against BP. In his June 15 address to the nation on the spill, the president specifically mentioned the need for wetlands restoration and created a commission, headed by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, to develop a plan.

Released three months later, the Mabus Plan recommended that Congress pass a law to ensure that a “significant amount” of the penalties that will be owed by BP and other parties under the Clean Water Act be used for coastal restoration. (Under current law, all this money would go to the federal treasury.) In mid-January, the final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling called for Congress to direct a full 80 percent of these fines to restoration. Depending on how negligent the government finds the companies, they could owe anywhere from $5 billion to $20 billion.

“For years, we’ve known that billions of dollars are what’s needed to create a sustainable coast,” says Reed, “but the likelihood of getting that out of the federal treasury has been marginal to say the least. The oil spill has provided a tantalizing opportunity to invest at an appropriate scale.”

Gaining Ground

Some 120 miles west of the Mississippi River’s iconic, and rapidly disappearing, bird-foot delta, NWF Coastal Louisiana Organizer Chris Pulaski (below) walks across the spongy ground of a very different delta. He notes that none of the elephant ear plants and willows thriving here, or even the earth itself, existed a few decades ago. Indeed, at 12,000 acres and growing, Wax Lake Delta near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River is one of the few places on the Louisiana coast that is actually gaining new ground.

The delta’s creation was a fluke. In 1941, explains Pulaski, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a straight-line canal to the bay from the southern end of the Atchafalaya River Basin, some 15 miles inland, to protect Morgan City from flooding. About 30 years later, locals noticed that new land was beginning to emerge. While a man-made project set it in motion, the process of delta building has been entirely natural. Scooping up a handful of heavy mud, Pulaski points out that “you’re looking at bits of Ohio, Minnesota and North Dakota,” all carried downstream by the Mississippi River (which links to the Atchafalaya) and allowed to settle. Left to its own devices, says Wood, “this is exactly what the river does.”

Letting the river do what it does is at the heart of conservationists’ strategy for restoring coastal Louisiana. Elsewhere along the coast, a handful of projects built to divert water from the Mississippi also are beginning to generate new land. As with Wax Lake, the diversions were not intended to build land but, in these cases, to alter offshore salinity for the benefit of commercial fisheries. “You can just imagine what a river diversion could do if it were designed for restoration,” says Wood.

In July, just after the oil well was finally capped, NWF and its partners released a report, Common Ground: A Shared Vision for Restoring the Mississippi River Delta. The report recommends a suite of major projects that, together, have the potential to turn the land-loss crisis around. Focusing on 15 projects already authorized (but not funded) by Congress, these efforts run the gamut, from large, appropriately placed river diversions to filling in abandoned pipeline canals to making use of sediment dredged from the river for navigation—some 22 million cubic yards a year now dumped deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite their diversity, most of the projects share a common tactic: reconnect the Mississippi River to its floodplain and use the river’s power to do the work of restoration. “Even in a straightjacket,” notes Raettig, “the Mississippi River, the sixth-largest river in the world, remains one of the most powerful natural forces on the continent.”

Senior Editor Laura Tangley visited coastal Louisiana last December.

By the Numbers: The Oil Spill’s Wildlife Victims

In the seven months following the April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, more than 9,000 birds, marine mammals and sea turtles were collected dead or injured in the vicinity of the spill. Many, but not all, of these wildlife victims were visibly oiled. “While the actual cause of death has yet to be determined for most of the wildlife, it is clear that a large proportion of deaths and injuries were related to the spill,” says NWF Senior Scientist Doug Inkley. “The number of animals collected—especially birds and sea turtles—was far beyond what is typical for this region.”

Among birds, the top 5 affected species—out of a total of 59 species collected during the spill—were laughing gull, brown pelican (left), northern gannet, royal tern and black skimmer. Most marine mammals were bottlenose dolphins. Of 609 dead sea turtles, nearly 500 were Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered sea turtle species in the world. The majority of the oil spill’s victims will never be counted, however. Many of these animals died in inaccessible marshes or far out at sea. Others decayed rapidly or simply sank out of sight. Scientists estimate that during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, wildlife rescuers located only about one of every ten birds that perished.

More worrisome are potential long-term effects on wildlife. Many animals that survived probably came in contact with oil—or may still, as significant amounts remain in the gulf. Both the oil and chemical dispersants used to break it up may affect the survival, reproduction and behavior of myriad species in unknown ways.

Even harder to predict are repercussions for the gulf’s food webs. “The timing of the spill coincided with spawning activity in many gulf species, and the epicenter of the spill is an area where much of this reproduction takes place,” says Bruce Stein, NWF’s director of climate change adaptation. “Should oil or dispersants cause a decline or collapse of important prey species, the ecological and economic consequences could be catastrophic.”

Such consequences may not show up for years to come. A year after the Exxon Valdez spill, Prince William Sound’s herring stocks “seemed like they’d pull through,” notes Inkley. “It wasn’t until the fourth year that they collapsed due to a delayed population effect of the oil, devastating the people and wildlife that depended on them. Today, more than two decades later, this once-vital fish still has not recovered.”

Bird Deaths and Injuries—Collected Live: 2,079 • Dead: 6,104

Marine Mammal Deaths and Injuries—Collected Live: 9 • Dead: 100

Sea Turtle Deaths and Injuries—Collected Live: 535 • Dead: 609

Animal death and injury numbers provided by Figures current as of November 2010.

NWF Priority: Coastal Restoration

For many years, working to bring back the degraded coast of Louisiana has been an important goal at NWF, with current efforts focused on making restoration a top national priority. Last April, when the gulf oil disaster began, Federation staff and volunteers rapidly deployed to report on imperiled wildlife and other problems. Once the well was capped, work shifted to advocating for policy reforms—to ensure that a similar disaster never happens again and to direct BP penalty funds to restoring the coast. In addition, NWF is launching volunteer events in the region and working with hunters and anglers to nationalize coastal Louisiana issues.

Update: April 20, 2011

In anticipation of today's one-year mark of the start of the Gulf oil disaster, two bills were introduced last week in the U.S. Senate to dedicate Clean Water Act (CWA) penalty funds to restoring the beleaguered Gulf Coast.

On April 17th, Louisiana's U.S. Senators, Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, introduced the RESTORE the Gulf Act of 2011 (S.861), which would allocate 35 percent of CWA fines to the five gulf states affected by the spill (split evenly), 60 percent to the newly created Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (for ecosystem restoration) and 5 percent to a Gulf Coast science, research and technology program. The Comprehensive Gulf of Mexico Recovery, Restoration and Resiliency Act (S. 862), introduced by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, would direct all of this money to the Gulf of Mexico Recovery Council, with 45 percent allocated for grants to local political subdivisions.

"We applaud the leadership of Senators Landrieu, Vitter and Nelson on this important issue and look forward to working with them to pass the strongest bill possible for Gulf Coast restoration," says Malia Hale, director of NWF's National Restoration and Water Resources Campaigns.

Last fall, Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise and Florida Congresswoman Kathy Castor introduced similar bills in the U.S. House of Representatives, but given current political realities, these bills are unlikely to move forward at this time.

Unless Congress does pass legislation mandating that CWA penalty funds go to restoring the Gulf Coast, all of that money will automatically be deposited in the federal treasury.

To learn more about the newly introduced legislation, and find out how you can help, visit NWF's Action Center.

Update: August 8, 2011

NWF and six partners working to restore wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico had cause to celebrate this summer: In July, a bipartisan coalition of the region’s senators introduced the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act, which would ensure that 80 percent of penalties owed by BP and others responsible for the Gulf oil disaster go to restoring the coast’s communities and habitats. Without new legislation, these funds—expected to total between $5 billion and $20 billion—would be deposited in the federal treasury and used for other purposes.

The 2010 spill wreaked havoc both with the region’s people and its environment. But the disaster also has provided a unique opportunity to bring back the battered coastline, where Louisiana alone has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands since the 1930s. Scientists say billions of dollars will be needed to restore the coast—and over the past year NWF and its partners have been working closely with key senate offices to craft legislation that could provide that funding through oil spill penalties.

“We are very pleased that the Gulf Coast senators came together to introduce a bipartisan bill and look forward to working with them throughout the process to secure the best possible result for restoration,” says NWF's Karla Raettig, Program Director, Coastal Louisiana Restoration.

Update: April 17, 2011

As the two-year mark of the Deepwater Horizon blowout approaches, NWF is releasing a report, A Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Two Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster, examining the health of the Gulf's wildlife and ecosystems today. Written by NWF Senior Scientist Doug Inkley, the document details continuing effects from the spill that will continue to unfold for years, if not decades, to come. "It's important to remember what we don't yet know," says Inkley. "Little action has been taken to address the longterm species threats and wetlands habitat degradation exacerbated by the oil disaster. Much more needs to be done to ensure a complete recovery."

Although the RESTORE Act did pass the U.S. Senate in March 2012, the bill remains in limbo in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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