GULF OF MEXICO:

'Restoration' is a shifty word on the bayou

The Lake Hermitage project is, by most measures, a model of restoration.

One of the early efforts proposed to help Louisiana recover from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the plan piggybacks on existing construction, adding 100 acres of marsh east of a shallow lake nestled between the Mississippi River and Barataria Bay. Not far from some of the spill's most oiled shorelines, these brackish pockets of open water will once again support the sway of cordgrass and, it is hoped, the cranky call of blue herons.

Yet despite all this planning, one fact remains: If everything goes right, the marsh will last only two decades, matching the ecological services provided in five years by a natural wetland. Then it, too, will start succumbing to erosion, subsidence and rising tides.

The Lake Hermitage marsh will be born with an expiration date.

"The project will have such a short lifespan when it gets done," said Ron Gouguet, a former federal ocean scientist and longtime expert in environmental restoration, who reviewed plans for the marsh. "It won't deliver much, because of subsidence."

In many ways, Lake Hermitage is a microcosm of the challenge facing the scientists and politicians charting how billions of dollars in restoration funds will be spent in the Gulf Coast. Long regarded as the country's environmental sacrifice zone, decisions are being made now on what in the Mississippi Delta can be restored, and what will be lost.

These are high-stakes questions that push the boundaries of science and politics, said Bob Haddad, the head of restoration efforts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a designated trustee behind the spill recovery.

"How do we deal with the fact that it's a nonsustainable coastline?" Haddad said.

Indeed, restoring the post-spill Gulf Coast will be like no other environmental recovery effort in U.S. history. Dwarfing the scale of the Exxon Valdez project -- if not necessarily the damage -- it will confuse notions of how restoration works and what it can do. It will test the resolve of politicians presented with a bounty of cash, and the limits of scientists seeking ways to compensate for damage done miles below the sea surface. And it may well be the final proving ground for whether the welter of plans for the eroding coast ever solidify into reality.

Year after year, these reports have steadily accrued, their growth a twisted echo of the muck failing to build out the Mississippi Delta. The plans, including recent, post-spill blueprints led by the federal government and Louisiana, are often backed by sound science and engineering. But that won't be enough, Haddad said.

"We've been developing plans in the Gulf Coast for years," he said. "We are plan weary. It's not about developing new plans. It's about starting to put them together, and developing the political, the scientific and the fiscal will to be able to get them done."

Nowhere is the challenge greater than Louisiana, which by nearly all accounts bore the brunt of BP PLC's oil spill. When the light crude reached shore, it crept into the wetlands withering away, deprived of sediment for decades. In fact, had Louisiana not lost 1,900 square miles of marshland since the 1930s -- an area nearly the size of Delaware -- many more acres could have been exposed to oil.

In the past, efforts to restore Louisiana's coast have seemed like the definition of madness, said Denise Reed, an environmental scientist at the University of New Orleans. The state kept trying the same piecemeal strategy, while expecting different results.

"If the marsh you had before fell apart, why won't the new one fall apart?" Reed said.

Billions of dollars are expected from the penalties and fines facing BP for the spill; recent estimates have predicted a settlement of more than $20 billion in damages. Beginning with a $1 billion "down payment" the firm made for early restoration work last year, the money for a full-scale rethinking of the Mississippi, a move away from piecemeal projects, should at last be available, experts say.

Whether those billions of dollars will go to environmental restoration is an open question, however. With some of the expected fines not tied to restoration -- a result not fixed by pending legislation in Congress -- there is a chance the BP money could repeat the debacle of the $206 billion tobacco settlement a decade ago, when states shifted these funds from smoking prevention to papering over deficits.

"To this day, I think you can go around the country and ask, where did that [tobacco] money go?" Haddad said. "And you don't get a clear answer. That's a cautionary tale for us. And we should be ashamed if we don't take advantage of this opportunity."

However this money is doled out, though, one thing is for certain: In a time of rising seas, there is no going back to the way things were in the 1930s. Land will be lost. People will have to move. The Louisiana coast won't ever be like it was.

"It will be a reconfigured coast," said Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the key state agency in spill recovery planning. "And it will be reconfigured in a way that is more sustainable."

Marsh building isn't easy

Even before the oil spill, Louisiana was facing a serious mountain shortage.

Over eons, the Mississippi River and its predecessors have ushered the crumbs of eroded mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, a muck that is more typically called sediment. It is a process that has built out land along the delta for ages, the natural construction shifting according to the river's geological need for the fastest route to ocean.

Then, during the past few centuries, the United States lashed the Mississippi River to the industrial rhythms of commerce. Its course, set by levees and mammoth control structures, became permanent, and dam after dam began to trap its sediment. The river used to carry 400 million tons of land-building silt to the Louisiana coast a year; by some estimates, that load has fallen by 75 percent.

Without these mountain crumbs to replenish it, the delta has been disappearing. Beyond the sea's erosion, the land itself, its muck not yet formed into bedrock, is compressing. Some barrier islands sink an inch every three years. Human-driven climate change is causing the seas to rise. Transport canals eat through the bayous. As a result, Louisiana loses a Manhattan-sized amount of marsh each year.

And that was before the BP oil floated in.

There is no assessment available of what damage the spill did to Louisiana. (The government's investigation is wrapped in legal-mandated secrecy.) The damage may be less than some of the worst scenarios sketched by environmentalists and the media during the spill, largely because so much oil remained offshore. But what is certain is that, when it comes to restoring already fragile marshes coated by BP's oil, there won't, in the end, be much of anything anyone can do.

There are no magic wands. Through decades of trial and error, scientists have found that their best attempts to restore oiled marshes often result in more harm than good.

"What we've learned ... is that every time I have gone to clean up a marsh, I have managed to make it worse," NOAA's Haddad said. "So at this point I cut off the tops of the sawgrass, to get the tackiness out of there, and then I let the oil naturally degrade."

Restoration, then, is not about healing damaged marshes. Rather, it is about creation, using heavy equipment to make swamps out of open water, preferably close to the oiled site. Gauging the time an oiled marsh takes to recover naturally -- a well-established fact, given human propensity for spilling oil -- an equal amount of artificial marsh, like Lake Hermitage, is added to match what has been lost.

It is no simple task, though, to build a marsh.

First, it involves moving a lot of land, because proposed marsh sites are almost always too high or low. Heavy equipment is needed to dredge and then pipe in sediment, and then backhoes to smear the silt around. If the land winds up too high or too low, then grasses get too little or too much water, and the marsh is over before it begins.

"That's the thing about wetlands," said Anna Armitage, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University, Galveston, who specializes in marsh creation. "They need water, but they have to have the right amount of water."

Even when an artificial marsh is built to its theoretical sweet spot, it remains unlikely to match the ecological benefits of natural swampland, Armitage added. (Government restoration plans account for the lower value of artificial marsh.) Grasses may fill out the land within a few years, but artificial swamps remain noticeably different from their untouched counterparts for decades -- longer than they may exist in Louisiana.

"It's a lot harder to achieve that same level of success if you're talking about animals or soil characteristics," Armitage said. "There are studies that show marshes 30 to 50 years old still have different soil characteristics than their reference areas."

It is highly unlikely, she added, to ever be 100 percent restored.

Makes Valdez recovery seem simple

When it comes down to it, "restoration" can be a surprisingly fungible word.

The government hints at this flexibility in the first projects it has proposed for early restoration work. There is habitat creation, of course, like Lake Hermitage and the expansion of an Alabama island for nesting birds. But one project would spend $4 million upgrading four boat ramps in Florida. Restoration, as the government puts it, does not just make the environment whole -- it must make Gulf residents whole, too.

Given the limits seen in directly restoring marshes -- a pattern that repeats throughout different habitats -- this broad definition will be essential in extracting appropriate damages from BP, scientists say. And perhaps the best example of how this definition will be applied is seen in Exxon Valdez, the Alaskan disaster that, until 2010, shaped how scientists and the public thought of oil spills.

Few scientists have been more involved in the Exxon Valdez recovery than Stanley Senner, who led Alaska's restoration planning for several years, until the settlement with Exxon, and then returned to serve as the science coordinator for the mix of federal, state and tribal groups overseeing restoration efforts. Like the Gulf, there were few chances to restore Prince William Sound directly, he said.

"It is hard to come up with projects, particularly to come up with projects that directly restore or replace what was injured," said Senner, now a science director at the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. "So most work ends up being compensatory."

In Alaska, much of this compensation went toward the government buying up tracts of pristine Alaskan wilderness, upstream land that could, say, help the silver salmon recover. Since Valdez, the range of these recovery purchases has expanded, especially when migratory birds are involved: Restoring loons killed by the North Cape spill in Rhode Island, for example, required the protection of lakes in the wilds of Maine.

Unlike Valdez, limited land purchases are expected in the Gulf's recovery.

"The habitat part would be more difficult in the Gulf," Senner said. "There's so many different landowners. So many more different jurisdictions. There may be considerable sentiment against putting more land into federal ownership."

Indeed, there have been fears of a land grab in some of the Gulf states, a concern that resulted in the House version of the "RESTORE Act," a bill designed to shunt clean water penalties from the federal government to the Gulf states, to include language banning any federal land purchases. It is a fear that is largely unfounded, NOAA's Haddad said, with the government targeting only a few exceptional sites.

"There was a tremendous amount of [land purchases] in Valdez because there was so much pristine habitat that they wanted to make sure was preserved," Haddad said. There are few places in the Gulf that anyone could charitably describe as pristine. "Obviously," he said, "the Gulf is very different."

The most important, and surprising, definition of restoration to come out of Valdez, though, was the idea of science as restoration. Exxon paid to improve how scientists understood the ecosystems of Alaska and the oil's interaction with wildlife, improving the management of the state's fisheries. Similar steps should happen in the Gulf of Mexico, benefiting both the fish and the people who catch them, Senner said.

"There's an enormous opportunity in the Gulf to make science a kind of a core of that program, in particularly for the marine environment," he said.

One of the most promising science programs for the Gulf would be a fully funded ocean observation system, tying together data from buoys, robotic gliders and onshore radar, Haddad said. Plans for such a program have existed for years, but it has received scant funds (Greenwire, June 3, 2010). This gap became apparent during the spill, when scientists used onshore radar to predict oil movements off Mississippi and Louisiana's eastern shore.

There was no radar, however, to cover the rest of Louisiana.

'What does it mean to heal the Gulf?'

Here's a secret: Scientists have little idea how the Gulf of Mexico works.

That became brutally clear by the second day of the spill, when Haddad's division began asking whether an ecosystem-level model of the Gulf existed. No, researchers said.

"Well, why not?" Haddad said. "We've been fishing in the Gulf for 100 years. It's a huge place for commerce, oil, fisheries. No. We haven't done that. Because that hasn't been the focus. That isn't where the money's gone."

Researchers understand plenty about individual ecosystems like Louisiana's bayous, of course, along with the biology of many of the Gulf's species and the climate and geology that wrap the ocean's life together. But how it all interacts? It's an open question.

"What does it mean to heal the Gulf?" Haddad added. "That always brings us back to a presumption that we as humans know how an ecosystem should function, right? We clearly don't. But at the same time, we do know when we [damage] the ecosystem."

This complexity is one reason Congress has asked the National Academies, the nation's premier scientific body, to explore, independent of the government's scientific investigation, how best the Gulf of Mexico can be restored. While a final report is not due until 2013, late last year the panel released an interim study that called on spill investigators to further expand their definition of restoration.

For parts of the spill, the typical model used for direct restoration -- replacing marsh with marsh, or a duck for a duck -- could falter, said Larry Mayer, head of the panel and an oceanographer at the University of New Hampshire.

"Even the trustees have acknowledged that the magnitude, depth and extent of this spill, and the complexity of the Gulf of Mexico, may provide a challenge for the traditional approach," he said.

Many of the fines assigned to BP will only rise as high as the number of restoration projects available. This has caused past projects to face a "restoration bottleneck" -- a point where there are no projects that compensate for the same kind of lost resources, said Ralph Stahl, a remediation scientist at Dupont Co. who is also serving on the panel.

To avoid this bottleneck, restoration should open itself to projects that go past these one-to-one replacements, using the natural services of the damaged habitat as a guide. For example, Stahl said, wetlands often protect against storm surges, but if more marsh cannot be built, then it might be appropriate to build a levee or berm instead.

It is a controversial approach, and it is unlikely that it will be adopted for much work in the Gulf, especially in Louisiana, where there is room for almost unlimited marsh creation. But it may be necessary for the region that, more than Louisiana, faced the greatest volume of BP's spill: the deep ocean.

The majority of the oil and gas escaping from BP's well never reached the Gulf's surface. Instead, it was trapped in diffuse clouds thousands of feet underwater (Greenwire, Jan. 10). While research has shown that these hydrocarbons became fuel for a bacterial feast, much uncertainty remains on the fate of the more complex oil components.

Say the government finds that the blowout damaged life in a few acres around the well, Mayer said. "You can't well say, 'We're going to replace a few acres of seafloor at a thousand meters.'" It's simply not feasible, he said.

Whether ecosystem services can justify a replacement project for deepwater damage remains to be seen. The spill's trustees are listening to the National Academies' advice, but accepted science and the law still have their limits, Haddad said.

"At the end of the day," he said, "I have to go into court and I have to prove causation. How do I prove causation that that oil landed over here but the shrimp over here are gone for three years? How do I prove that causation?"

Scientists are working on it, using advanced genetic tools, he added. Stay tuned.

Wanted: Money and time

When it comes to restoration, Louisiana will have to run to stand still.

Earlier this month, the state released its most frank assessment of the future of its coast. With an optimistic scenario for sea-level rise, and major restoration steps taken, the state would still lose land until 2042. Under less optimistic scenarios, action would only reduce the rate of loss; a half-century from now, at a cost of $50 billion, the coast will be losing marsh at less than 10 square miles a year.

This unavoidable loss means hard choices ahead, said Graves, the state's coastal chief.

"We'd love for people to have what they have now," he said, "but it's just not possible."

The plan calls for a massive amount of marsh restoration -- more than $10 billion worth. But, most importantly, it calls for large-scale sediment diversions from the Mississippi River, a step long sought by environmentalists and opposed by fishermen and industrial shipping on the river. That fight, the report said, is over: "It is no longer a question of whether we will do these types of large-scale diversion projects, but how we will do them."

These diversions are the first hint of what could result in a sustainable coastline. But their future is uncertain. How will they, and much of the marsh creation, be funded?

That depends, in large part, on the spill recovery.

The spill will ultimately create two big pots of money. The first will arise from the government's investigation, which focuses on restoring environmental damage done to the Gulf, a process known as the natural resources damage assessment (NRDA). The second pot, meanwhile, will come out of oil spill fines mandated by the Clean Water Act. Both have their particular limitations.

As the National Academies noted, NRDA damages can only rise as high as the number of potential restoration projects. These projects must be seen as restoring the Gulf's injuries only to its crumbling baseline, and so NRDA money won't necessarily fund projects of greater scope, like diversions, which may "enhance" damaged land. And NRDA assessments tend to drag on, pushing back restoration spending. BP's $1 billion payment was meant to avoid this last problem, but its effectiveness remains to be seen.

"[NRDA's] got some flaws that were somewhat exposed in this spill," said Graves, chairman of Louisiana's coastal authority. "The reality is that if we let this take its course, we'd be looking at 15 years before we got to restoration."

A former NOAA scientist and a pioneer of the restoration bottleneck concept, Gouguet is especially concerned about delay in saving a series of islands off Alabama's coast that provide critical bird habitat. If all of these islands are not addressed by the $1 billion in early funds -- one is present in the first proposed round -- they could fade beneath the water before the final assessment is done. No restoration will bring them back.

"When the island winks out, those colonies are lost," Gouguet said. "Remember, other places to breed are simultaneously disappearing. So even when the island is eventually restored, bird stocks are reduced and breeders may not recolonize the islands."

While worried about a delay in NRDA funds, Gulf scientists also fear they will lose access to the Clean Water Act fines needed to knit the coast's recovery together. Expected to reach up to $20 billion, the fines do not prevent enhancement and could be used to build large-scale sediment diversions, for example. But this flexibility has a flip side: Ultimately, the federal government and the states will have to choose to put this money toward restoration. In a time of tight budgets, that could be a test.

While commissions on the Gulf's recovery have recommended that Congress pass a law routing 80 percent of the clean-water fines to the states, that bill -- the RESTORE Act -- is stalled. But contrary to popular belief, a failure to pass the law would not necessarily see these funds disappear into the Treasury. Officials have signaled interest in attaching a legal provision known as a supplemental environmental project to the settlement, which would dedicate the fines to Gulf restoration.

Indeed, there is concern in Louisiana that the RESTORE Act goes too far in broadening the use of the fines. Some of the Gulf states suffered little environmental damage from the spill and could struggle to find appropriate restoration projects. By allowing the fines to go to economic recovery -- 65 percent of the funds going to the Gulf states could be used for either cause -- restoration of the Mississippi Delta could be shortchanged.

NOAA's Haddad did not express a preference between the RESTORE Act or attaching an environmental project to the settlement. But, as cursory research makes clear, the $206 billion tobacco settlement -- his analogy for what could happen to clean-water funds -- was not squandered by the federal government. That money went to individual states, many of which diverted it to other uses.

"Is there the political will to actually get it done?" Haddad said. "Or will we find ourselves, five years down the road, 10 years down the road, with no enhancement and seeing the monies that were to go to enhancement go to the same place, wherever that is, that the tobacco monies went?"

The fate of the Mississippi Delta will depend on these answers.

'Field of Dreams' hypothesis

Back in the bayou, construction on the Lake Hermitage marshes has already begun.

Prior to the spill, Louisiana and the Interior Department had an existing plan to add 550 acres to the site, dredging silt from the nearby Mississippi River. That effort was budget-strapped, though, leaving potential wetlands unmade, set as tiered mud. Some $13 million from BP's early fund will fill that hole, allowing the marsh to stretch out as full as its designers intended. Everyone agrees it is an efficient use of resources.

There are no guarantees the marsh will be successful, but Louisiana has learned from its past failures: There was the Queen Bess Island project, which received too little sediment and remained flooded; Point Au Fer Island, where a failed dike saw 140 acres of marsh created, rather than 260 acres; and, of course, the West Belle Pass Headland restoration, filled in at pockmarked heights, creating 31 acres of saltwater marsh, rather than 184 acres.

It is not a record of unalloyed success. And even if workers manage to get the elevation right, there is still the matter of getting grass to grow. There are a couple of schools of thought on how to do it, said Texas A&M's Armitage. Some scientists feel that if proper land is built in the right place, nature will do its work.

"This is called the 'Field of Dreams' hypothesis," she said. "If you build it, they will come."

More often, the grass needs to be brought back, especially since marshland is often created in degraded regions. Armitage brings in school children to help her plant nursery-grown grass, especially smooth cordgrass, the most common transplant. It is easy to dig up and transplant, she said, but it does not reproduce well by seed.

Should the grass take hold, the Lake Hermitage marsh will have little tidal connectivity at first, serving as a home for rabbits or raccoons. Within a few years it will settle, developing open water and tidal creeks as it reaches its marsh apotheosis. Crab, killifish, alligators, muskrats and herons, among others, could find a home, according to Kevin Roy, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who evaluated the project.

Then, after two decades, rising seas and subsidence would begin to take hold, he said.

Given its expiration date, should the Lake Hermitage marshes be built at all? There is deep disagreement. Armitage, for one, is not sure. Restoration is too often done in the here and now, she said. Plans fail to reflect that, in 50 years, a marsh will be underwater.

Gulf restoration needs to be done better, said the Ocean Conservancy's Senner. "It's critical," he said, "that this program has an eye cast to the horizon of how the environment is changing due to climate change, and how that changes these investments."

The artificial marshes created in Louisiana will not be made without some thought, as the state will use computer models to predict only the most resilient locations, Graves noted. And perhaps, if these marshes are tied together properly, restoration can finally begin to look sustainable, Roy said.

"Many areas of our coast cannot be restored with a single project," he said. "It may require several projects, which when linked together, can provide a cumulative effect beyond each individual piece."

That is certainly Haddad's hope. Once the next set of early restoration projects is announced, he said, the overriding themes of restoration will be apparent, with projects involving coastal protection, living shorelines and turtle habitat, among other areas.

If the political will is there, it could be a time for the government to shine, he said.

"These are the chances," Haddad said. "This is where federal government can actually be good, if they can marshal forces to deal with these large, very complex issues and bring a sustained effort, over years."