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Obama's Gulf Coast restoration plan is short on details

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; A01

President Obama made an ambitious promise Tuesday to bring the Gulf Coast's habitat back to health.

How and when that will happen is another matter.

The White House could offer almost no details Wednesday about the "Gulf Coast Restoration Plan" pledged by the president in his Oval Office address. Experts, meanwhile, said any meaningful plan to restore a region damaged by decades of poor industrial planning, frequent hurricanes and now the oil spill could cost as much as $30 billion over the next 15 to 20 years. Such a sum would dwarf the country's largest environmental restoration project so far -- the $12 billion plan for the Florida Everglades.

In his speech, Obama indicated that he expected the new restoration project to go beyond what is typically required after an environmental accident -- that the responsible party restore the ecosystem to its previous condition. Instead, Obama said, it is "clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region. . . . That's why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment."

The challenges of designing a restoration plan that does more than correct for the spill's impact are as vast and complex as the delta it would aim to revitalize, balancing environmental goals with commercial uses.

The most important factor is compensating for the human impact on the course of the Mississippi River. Over the years, the river has been dug deeper for the benefit of ships carrying cargo to and from the heartland, and channeled between ever-bigger levees to prevent floods from swamping built-up areas. Any long-term restoration plan would have to re-engineer the river's navigation and flood-control system in order to allow silt from floodwaters to replenish Louisiana's wetlands, which act not only as nurseries for shrimp and oysters but also as natural protection against stormy seas. Other projects might include diverting irrigation water from Texas farmers to ensure brackish lagoons have enough freshwater to sustain their sea-grass beds.

"Hard decisions will have to be made," said Paul Harrison, senior director for the Mississippi River at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. "If you're going to really reconnect the river to its wetlands, how do you move ships and protect communities as part of that?"

The White House has not even begun to contemplate questions such as how to restore the 2,300 square miles of wetlands that have vanished over the past century. When asked for details about the new plan, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said it would include "a comprehensive assessment of post-spill recovery needs, as well as a plan to provide integrated federal assistance for longer-term restoration and recovery."

For now, federal and state officials, along with BP contractors, are simply trying to figure out how badly the oil spill hurt the gulf environment as part of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment. NRDA, an elaborate legal process that kicks in after an oil spill occurs, ultimately produces a legal settlement where the party responsible for the spill must pay to make the habitat whole again.

"It's the other way of holding BP accountable," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "The damage assessment process will go on for quite a while."

BP spokeswoman Anne Kolton declined to comment on the administration's plan, although she noted the company pledged last week to devote profits from oil it recovers from the spill to wildlife habitat along the coast. In late May, the company said it would spend $500 million on research into the spill's environmental and public health effects; on Tuesday, it announced $25 million in grants to universities in Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are trying to decipher what more the administration will do to help the ravaged region.

"That's when having the fine print would be helpful," said Stan Senner, who served as Alaska's restoration program manager and science coordinator after the Exxon Valdez spill and now directs conservation science for the Ocean Conservancy.

Still, many said the new plan signals the administration is prepared to launch the largest gulf recovery effort in decades. Although Congress has authorized wetlands restoration projects over the years, including as recently as 2007, it rarely follows through with needed funds. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it appropriated $500 million, but much of that has gone to levees and water pumps instead of the marshes. The 1990 Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act provides $80 million a year, but that's a fraction of the cost of truly revitalizing the region.

"This is a perfect opportunity to restore the ecological health of the gulf," said Keith Ouchley, Louisiana state director for the Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy is drafting a detailed plan for the gulf, to be unveiled at the end of the month, that will include everything from restoring oyster beds that have been harvested for road building to providing more freshwater to Laguna Madre, which accounts for three-fourths of Texas's sea-grass habitat.

Some of these proposals could spark resistance. Don Parrish, a water specialist at the American Farm Bureau, said that while farmers support wetlands restoration, diverting irrigation water in Texas "will be controversial, to say the least."

And shippers say any navigational changes to the Mississippi for the sake of the environment must be weighed against their economic impact. "You need to balance environmental restoration -- everyone's for that -- but you have to balance that with the commercial industry's need as well," said Anne Burns, a spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators.

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