GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - Restoring the flow of sediment to Gulf Coast wetlands and barrier islands that are key wildlife habitats and provide crucial protection from storms is one of the biggest challenges officials face as they seek to restore a region whose long-time ecological problems came into focus after last year's disastrous oil spill.
The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force held its fifth and next-to-last public meeting on Monday in Galveston, itself an eroding barrier island in Texas. The group was tasked by President Barack Obama with restoring, rebuilding and protecting the Gulf of Mexico and the communities nearby. Members say they hope to identify and expand successful projects in Gulf states, and create the first holistic approach to restoring an ecosystem that is crucial to the U.S. economy.
Previous public sessions, along with eight months of behind-the-scenes work by the task force since it was established, have highlighted the concern of officials and residents who live in the five states that border the Gulf - regions where the economy, culture and lifestyle hinge on the health of the waters, said Lisa P. Jackson, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and chair of the task force.
"Getting that sediment back to the habitat is going to be very important," Jackson said at a news conference to highlight the meeting, held in a palm tree-lined conference center with panoramic windows overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Sediment - nutrient-filled sand and rock that flow from rivers and streams into the ocean - are the structural foundation of the Gulf's ecosystem. This sediment helps ensure the health of the barrier islands and wetlands that provide homes to birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife, while also creating a natural barrier from storms for the millions of people who live along the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast.
At least some of the money for projects that will help revive the flow of sediments to the Gulf Coast will come from a $1 billion fund that BP, the company whose offshore oil rig exploded causing the massive spill, has agreed to dedicate toward Gulf restoration.
Of that money, each of the five states will get $100 million for their projects, said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce will each get an additional $100 million, and $300 million will be distributed to other crucial projects. The task force's report, along with a strategy for solving the problems and priorities, has to be presented to Obama by October.
The oil spill that began with a fatal explosion on April 20, 2010 on the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon was the impetus for establishing the task force. But the region's problems - including the decrease in sediment flow - has long been known, especially to those who live in the region.
Terrence Salt, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works and a member of the task force, told The Associated Press that sediment flow has decreased due to management of upstream rivers and land conservation practices. For example, the Mississippi River - a major source of freshwater and sediment to the Gulf of Mexico, its islands and wetlands - has about half the sediment it originally had, he said.
The problems can be dated back to the late 1800s, when the U.S. began designing and building levees and structures along the Mississippi River to protect residents from flooding, Salt said. And while the constructions allowed people to live along the river, they impacted the flow of sediments crucial to life downstream.
The extent of the damage was clear by the middle of the 20th century, and now, 85 percent of the coastal wetlands have been lost, said John Hankinson, the task force's executive director.
Florida addressed such issues in the Everglades. Louisiana began dealing with the loss in earnest after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 highlighted the crucial role that wetlands and barrier islands play in protecting the population from massive storms. Louisiana and Mississippi even came up with a joint road map for restoration.
"They are more than habitats for birds and critters. They provide important services to people," Salt said.
After Katrina, Louisiana embarked on a large scale project to restore Deer Island, a seriously eroded barrier island. That work is almost done, Hankinson said, providing an example of how such projects can be done and serve as a building block for other similar activities. The task force is hoping that rather than creating new projects, it will be able to expand on plans and activities that already exist in the five Gulf states.
Salt and Hankinson hope they can form projects that will allow sediment to naturally flow and reach the areas most in need, the best way to restore an ecosystem. And now, with the spotlight on the Gulf and the money in place to begin rolling back decades of human damage, the work can begin.
"We all agree, everybody agrees, that getting more of the sediment back into the right places is a priority," Salt said. "The shared goal is to be as smart as we can about where we put those sediments."