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20 months after Deepwater Horizon, Task Force makes final recommendations on future of Gulf

Dec 28, 2011

At first, we didn't know how bad the damage was going to be.

When news first broke on April 20, 2010, that an oil tanker owned by British Petroleum had sprung a giant leak in the Gulf of Mexico, we had no idea how severe the problem really was.

Only as the days and weeks and, eventually, months went by as oil flowed like water into the Gulf did the full horror of the spill come into focus. The final tally of 4.9 billion barrels of oil being spilled was shocking, by far the largest spill in American history.  The 11 men who worked on the rig who died, and 17 more who were injured, were a testament to how serious this accident was.

And not to be overlooked at all was the massive damage to the environment. According to one report by CBS News, more than 400 species of wildlife, some of them endangered species, faced serious risk from the damage done by the spill.

Not to mention the incredible damage to businesses in Gulf states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and the fallout from the tourism industry is nothing to be sneezed at, either.

(Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency)

But we don't need to spend a lot of time dwelling on the disastrous toll the Deepwater Horizon spill took before it was finally stopped in July, 2010. What's important to look at going forward is how the Gulf will be protected going forward, and that was the job of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a group of state, local and federal officials that was formed months ago to put forth recommendations and strategies for the Gulf.

After more than 40 meetings, and after soliciting input from the public, the Task Force released its final strategies and recommendations earlier this month.The full document, which can be viewed in PDF form here, makes a host of recommendations. Among them:

  • Stopping the Loss of Critical Wetlands, Sand Barriers and Beaches: The strategy recommends placing ecosystem restoration on an equal footing with historic uses such as navigation and flood damage reduction by approaching water resource management decisions in a far more comprehensive manner that will bypass harm to wetlands, barrier islands and beaches. The strategy also recommends implementation of several Congressionally authorized projects in the Gulf that are intended to reverse the trend of wetlands loss.

  • Reducing the Flow of Excess Nutrients into the Gulf: The strategy calls for working in the Gulf and upstream in the Mississippi watershed to reduce the flow of excess nutrients into the Gulf by supporting state nutrient reduction frameworks, new nutrient reduction approaches, and targeted watershed work to reduce agricultural and urban sources of excess nutrients.
  •  Enhancing Resiliency among Coastal Communities: The strategy calls for enhancing the quality of life of Gulf residents by working in partnership with the Gulf with coastal communities. The strategy specifically recommends working with each of the States to build the integrated capacity needed through effective coastal improvement plans to better secure the future of their coastal communities and to implement existing efforts underway.

Additionally, the Task Force will open up a local office, headed up by Task Force Executive Director John Hankinson, in the Gulf Coast shortly.

There are many more recommendations and major details available, but that's a quick overview. I had the opportunity to speak with two members of the Task Force in the past week to get their thoughts on the process, and what the committee decided. First, a couple of facts about the committee:

There were representatives from 11 federal agencies on the force, from the Dept. of Agriculture, the Dept. of Commerce, Dept. of the Interior, Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Justice, and the Dept. of Transportation. Additionally, the Domestic Policy Council, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Council, along with the Council on Environmental Quality, were represented.

Five states all with major economic concerns in the Gulf region had members on the committee, as individuals from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas voiced their concerns.

Harris Sherman, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, said he was pleasantly surprised at the partnerships that formed.

"Given everyone's different interests, I thought it was a tremendous partnership from everybody," Sherman said. "Of course it was a give and take process, and we spent a great amount of time talking about the problems and difficulties had been in the Gulf region even before the (Deepwater Horizon) disaster.

"But the big thing now," Sherman continued, "is that there's a blueprint in place for how we can protect the Gulf in the future."

Sherman said the group met twice in person and the rest of the time over telephone conference calls, and that there were several specifics in the final strategy he was proud of. One of them was the allocation of $50 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Society to the five Gulf states.

"The money will be used to work with farmers and ranchers on various nutrient management plans, as well as water conservation plans and wildlife conservation plans," Sherman said. "There are seven watersheds that drain directly into the Gulf of Mexico, and this money will hopefully help a lot."

Sherman said that, as expected, the Task Force encountered some anger and frustration from residents of the Gulf states, with major concerns about restoring water quality and wetlands.

He said business leaders "wanted to see results, and concrete steps taken, which we all wanted."

Some of those plans included developing and implementing comprehensive, scientifically based, and stakeholder-informed coastal improvement programs, providing analytical support tools to enhance community planning, risk assessment and smart growth implementation, and enhancing environmental education and outreach.

On the state level, I spoke to Alice Perry, who is the Assistant Director of the Mississippi Dept. of Environmental Quality. Perry also was pleased with how smoothly the Task Force was able to come together.

"I was pretty skeptical going into it, because sometimes these things get off track with so many people involved, but I think the federal partners we had, and the state folks, went an incredible distance to understand each other's perspective."

Perry said she was most proud of the work already being done by residents of the Gulf "with a lot more technical expertise than most have, doing what they can to preserve the Gulf."

Perry said that from her state's point of view, she was very happy to see the emphasis on the barrier islands, as well as sensitivity toward the "rich cultural diversity here."

"Another big thing the Task Force did was understanding that the Gulf Coast was a working coast; while we have ecosystem treasures, the seafood industry, the oil and gas industry, all of their interests needed to be taken into account."

Perry said that there was not a huge amount of lobbying done by outside influences trying to get the Task Force to recommend certain measures taken, but that she was grateful for the public comments portion of the process. There were 40 public meetings held throughout the five states prior to the final recommendations being made.

"There were details that were changed, and some things that the public brought our attention to in different ways," Perry said. "You know, we were dealing with a situation that was really unprecedented, but I believe that we'll now be more ready to handle a situation like this in the future.

"We know how to do hurricanes," Perry concluded with a chuckle, "but we never had to deal with something like this."