HOUSTON (AP) - Coastal states must work together to restore key elements of the Gulf of Mexico that have made it a backbone of the U.S. economy before the ecosystem becomes so weak and polluted that it is no longer habitable for animals or people, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday.
The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, established by President Barack Obama after last year's catastrophic oil spill, provided an executive summary of the report to the Associated Press. The draft report seeks to pinpoint the biggest challenges and most pressing issues facing the Gulf and also provide the five coastal states - Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama - with a restoration strategy.
"One of the results of all the meetings is a real sense of urgency," EPA chief Lisa Jackson told The AP. "Person after person came in and said 'we're losing the Gulf.' None of it is irreversible, but the longer we wait, the harder it will be."
The Gulf of Mexico's ecosystem, long the victim of upstream efforts to allow easy ship navigation and prevent Mississippi River flooding, has been in a state of environmental decline for decades.
BP's oil spill, the largest offshore spill in U.S. history, drew public attention to the slow, persistent damage done to the area that produced 30 percent of the nation's gross domestic product in 2009. The sudden fear that the oil would permanently harm the marine and coastal area created an urgency to fix those woes.
The task force, made up of representatives from an array of federal and state agencies, laid out four goals requiring immediate attention: restoring and conserving habitat; restoring water quality; replenishing and protecting coastal and marine resources and enhancing community resilience.
The committee also demanded that Congress, which has still failed to dedicate funding to restoration efforts, dedicate "significant portions" of penalties from the oil spill to the recovery efforts. Members also are asking Congress to create a permanent council to oversee, coordinate and manage the restoration.
For some Gulf Coast officials, however, federal involvement is not necessarily a blessing. Mayor Tony Kennon in Orange Beach, Ala., as well as Leoda Bladsacker, a town councilwoman in Grand Isle, La., both said they have little confidence that any positive change will come of the task force or its findings.
"I don't have much faith in any of that right now," Bladsacker said, feeling it's taken too long for the country to take notice of the damage done to the Gulf and its communities.
Kennon, meanwhile, is concerned federal oversight could prove detrimental to restoration efforts. He adds he is wary of the government's "incestuous relationships with big oil" and a regulation-heavy attitude.
"I think there may be change. I just don't know if it may be good change or bad change," Kennon said.
A priority highlighted by the task force is a need to restore and preserve natural river processes that distribute and process sediment and freshwater - the lifeblood of downstream wetlands and the wildlife that call those areas home.
The sediment - nutrient -filled sand and rock that flow from rivers and streams into the ocean - constitute the structural foundation of the Gulf's ecosystem.
Thousands of years of downstream sediment flows helped create the wetlands and barrier islands that are now parts of the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Like sponges, they soak up floodwaters and protect millions of residents in coastal communities from the massive hurricanes and other storms that blow inland from the ocean.
And these islands and wetlands are home to birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife. Freshwater estuaries are nursery grounds for oysters, shrimp, crabs and dozens of fish species; all of these then move into the Gulf's saltier waters, a cycle that guarantees healthy and strong marine populations. Those species are crucial to a region that accounts for 33 percent of the nation's seafood. Yet all have been impacted by the excess nutrients and pollutants from upstream basins that have degraded water quality and changed the very look and feel of some ecosystems.
"Restoring the supply of sediment is the number one most important thing. If we can do that, as well as decrease the flow of nutrients that have created a dead zone in the Gulf, we'll be in good shape," Jackson said.
The dead zone is an area where there is so little oxygen nothing can live. Scientists believe it is caused by fertilizers and other nutrients from the Midwest that flow into the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf.
The Gulf of Mexico has at times been overlooked, but economically it is vital. More than 90 percent of the nation's offshore oil and natural gas production originates in the Gulf, 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage are in the region and if the five coastal states were a country, they would rank seventh in global gross domestic product.
Jackson said the task force has identified a variety of strategies - including rebuilding barrier islands and wetlands - to help restore the Gulf. But she believes the most successful will involve partnerships between the public and the private sector.
Most immediately, making preservation of the Gulf as important as flood control and navigation - a major policy shift from how the U.S. has traditionally treated the region during the past century - will likely lead to quick results, Jackson said.
Working with Midwest farming states, where much of the harmful fertilizers originate, to prevent that flow will also lead to immediate improvements, she said. It will take longer to engage some communities and ensure all are aware if the Gulf's importance, Jackson added.
"We are wary of promising quick results but we are already seeing change in a focus on the problems of the Gulf and addressing them in a new sense of urgency," she said. "There will be things that can be done fairly quickly ... but then there are decades of decline that will heal over decades."
Alice Perry, assistant director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and her state's representative on the task force, said the states are committed to working with the federal government to restore the Gulf Coast.
"The combination of several bad things, hurricanes, the oil spill incident, all of those things brought national attention to the Gulf Coast that we may not have gotten any other way." Perry said. "Hopefully, this will be some good that comes out of it."