The National Wildlife Federation believes that a significant portion of the Deepwater Horizon restoration dollars should focus on efforts to improve the Gulf of Mexico’s estuaries. These coastal systems – where fresh water from rivers mixes with the saltier waters of the Gulf – are among the most productive natural places in the world. Estuaries serve as spawning, nursery, and feeding grounds for nearly all of the Gulf’s commercial and recreational fish species and provide essential habitat for hundreds of species of birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
As the Gulf region recovers from the largest oil spill in U.S. history, state and federal leaders have an opportunity to invest wisely in the long-term health and resiliency of its coastal lands and waters. Most of the Gulf’s estuaries have been harmed by decades of human alterations. Oyster reefs have been over-harvested. Wetlands across the Gulf – particularly in the Mississippi River Delta – have been lost to subsidence and erosion. Most of the rivers that flow to the coast have been leveed, dammed, deepened or straightened, their seasonal cycles of flow altered, and their water diverted for cities, agriculture or navigation. Sea level rise and extreme storm events threaten the coast and its residents.
The Deepwater Horizon penalties will make as much as $16 billion available for habitat restoration. However, even this vast sum will not be enough address the myriad problems facing the Gulf. Focusing these funds on improving the health of key estuaries vital for wildlife will benefit the health of the Gulf as a whole over the long term.
The National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf of Mexico Restoration Program developed a science-based and systematic approach to evaluate estuarine restoration needs. This approach assesses critical stressors, identifies focal areas, determines restoration needs, and establishes restoration targets to make recommendations. The diagram below illustrates this process and demonstrates potential benefits that a suite of restoration projects could collectively achieve, including estimated resilience co-benefits.
The need to restore more natural ecological processes, from freshwater flow to sediment delivery, is perhaps the most achievable step we can take to make a substantive, lasting improvement to the health of the Gulf and enhance the resiliency of coastal communities. With a more natural pattern of water and sediment delivery, an estuary will provide a stronger, more sustainable platform for subsequent restoration projects, such as marsh or oyster reef restoration efforts.
We encourage decision-makers to invest in the health and productivity of the Gulf by prioritizing investments, including those described here, that meaningfully address the restoration needs of each estuary and the Gulf as a whole. The Gulf’s estuaries are the lifeblood of communities and businesses, and their protection and restoration are key to both the near-term recovery and the long-term resiliency of the national treasure that is the Gulf of Mexico.