Gulf of Opportunity

Task force offers new hope for coastal communities

Despite periodic gloom and doom, there’s reason for hope for Gulf of Mexico coastal ecosystems and communities in 2012: A promising new strategy is moving forward in response to immediate insults and incremental threats from pollution, development and climate change.

Gulf states, communities, nongovernmental organizations and agencies have been down this road before, launching and touting collaborations of varying sizes and goals. This time, there’s a real chance it will be different. At least there’s a better roadmap—released Dec. 5, 2011, and backed by a stronger coalition—to increase the likelihood of success (www.epa.gov/gulfcoasttaskforce).

President Obama issued an executive order on Oct. 5, 2010, establishing a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force of 11 federal agencies and the five Gulf states, building on previous efforts of prior administrations and governorships. Federal and state colleagues met extensively and listened to tribal and local officials and the public, with more than 40 public meetings, to sort out priorities and lines of authority for short-and long-term recovery and restoration.

The strategy focuses on healthy wetland ecosystems, clean water and nutrients, and resilient coastal communities. These same themes dominated previous discussions and strategies, particularly within the Gulf State Governors’ Alliance, established more than five years ago, and the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico hypoxia task force, established almost 15 years ago.

A Recurring Lesson

The challenges and topic areas aren’t new. I remember a former coastal Louisiana Congressman saying in 1995 that he was in danger of being the first member of Congress to be “eroded from office,” given the continuing loss of wetlands from sea level rise, oil and gas pipelines, navigation channels and other development stressors.

On the nutrients front, the strategy deploys efforts contemplated by the Mississippi River watershed task force dating back to President Clinton and carried on by all administrations since, including the Bush administration, when I served as the chair on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in particular, is touting a $50-million funding effort to reduce nutrient pollution.

Resiliency and smart development attract considerable attention, too. Health and Human Services and EPA toured sites immediately after Hurricane Katrina, thinking about lessons learned and smart growth opportunities with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, Army Corps and others. Of course, the key always will be leadership at the state and local levels to strengthen coastal communities and, as climatologists like to say, “managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable.” Keeping wetlands healthy and infrastructure out of harm’s way, and making cost-effective retrofits of existing structures, are great examples. The five governors are now well positioned in the strategy to make a difference.

A few features jump out to help explain the “success” so far, at least in planning, drafting and partnering. One is the unfortunate reality that it often takes a tragedy to energize and galvanize big efforts that have stagnated or stalled in the past (e.g., the Exxon Valdez and oil spill legislation, the Bhopal chemical accident and community-right-know legislation). In this case, the perfect storm of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout/spill and Hurricane Katrina combined with the annual grim news over dead zones and shrinking coasts spurred the action.

The Human Element

Another point is the federal-state partnership. Tensions will exist and “cooperative federalism” will be tested, but at least the strategy has a federal chair and a state vice chair and a foundation of strong involvement by the alliance of five state governors formed in 2005. The effort also shows bipartisanship and civility—accomplishments that alone are worthy of a press release in these days of wedge politics and rudeness.

One last point: Big plans don’t write themselves, and they don’t translate automatically into results either. They happen because of individual people who can move hearts and minds and steer organizations and processes toward common ground for the common good.

One such person is Bryon Griffith, an EPA employee who has been colloraborating in the Gulf for decades. He just retired from a distinguished career of service to the agency and countless other organizations and communities. As deputy to the executive director for the Gulf Task Force, he also had a major hand in shaping the just-released strategy and aligning federal and nonfederal interests toward environmental progress. I’m betting (more or less than $10,000) he stays involved in some capacity to help move it forward. It’s in his blood, just as clean and safe water are in the blood and sweat, so to speak, of the new strategy.

All it needs now is dedicated funding for implementing, monitoring and researching. No small task, but that’s how sustained task forces can help. 2012 should be an interesting year.

Benjamin H. Grumbles is president of the Clean Water America Alliance. Views expressed in this column may not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance or its members. Grumbles can be reached at bhgrumbles@gmail.com.

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