A Matter of Scale

08/19/2010 08:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Earlier this week, I met with Ray Mabus, who in addition to his day job as Secretary of the Navy, has been tasked by President Obama with serving as the overall coordinator of the federal effort to restore the Gulf of Mexico after the Macondo oil gusher. I was struck by the chasm between the result Secretary Mabus is supposed to achieve and the scale of which the federal government currently seems capable.

In appointing Mabus, who was consistently endorsed by the Sierra Club in his campaigns for governor of Mississippi, the president declared that he had chosen a son of the Gulf to restore the Gulf because "the oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that's already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats. Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it's also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region." But President Obama also said, "The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists, and other Gulf residents. And BP will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region."

Unfortunately, you cannot restore the Gulf if you limit your actions to the Gulf itself. The Gulf Coast is not just where the land meets the sea, it is also the outlet for a system of rivers (of which the Mississippi is by far the most critical). The Gulf Coast is where the forces of rivers flowing south and storms blowing north are supposed to balance out. Over the past century, though, we have tamed and polluted both the rivers and the Gulf to the point where they no longer are in balance. The Gulf is winning, but in the process it is destroying the nursery that keeps it alive, spawns its marine life, and cleanses the fresh water flowing into it.

For now, Secretary Mabus faces two enormous and immediate problems.

First, he must restore public confidence in what the government is saying. The premature announcement by NOAA that three-quarters of the oil that had spilled was no longer a concern was followed by new data suggesting that, in fact, 80 percent of the oil is still loose in Gulf ecosystems.

As Secretary Mabus pointed out, even a quarter of the oil would be about one million barrels and capable of enormous harm -- so these percentages are not really the critical issue. As the Palm Beach Post said, all this rushing to judgment is unhelpful. We really shouldn't expect to know the answer to this question yet -- any more than we should pretend that anyone knows how to restore the Gulf when no one has done anything like this before. A little more bureaucratic willingness to say "We don't know yet," and a little more public and media acceptance of that as the proper response, would go a long way. But when, a few days into the job, Secretary Mabus made that point, the media jumped all over him.

New data continue to emerge -- such as a recent Woods Hole analysis showing that one of the major underwater oil plumes is not being rapidly degraded.  But we'll never get this right if the question of when the fisheries and recreational waters of the Gulf can be declared safe again becomes a political football.

Mabus's second immediate challenge is financial. The president has committed that BP will pay for the damage it caused. But even if that promise bears fruit (BP can be expected to fight back hard), there's no guarantee that the money will be spent promptly and effectively on long-term restoration. Recent Congressional behavior when it comes to money for long-range investments isn't reassuring. Twice, for example, Congress has raided money it previously set aside for encouraging renewable energy for other, short-term purposes.

But looking down the road, the Secretary Mabus has an even bigger challenge. The U.S. government, in fact, is not big enough, or strong enough, to restore the Gulf. Only the Mississippi River has the necessary power. This is not an engineering challenge -- although engineers will be desperately needed. The Gulf needs two things: clean water and lots of clean silt. The silt is currently building up behind (and clogging) federal dams on the Missouri River.  And what silt does come down the Big Muddy is being hustled out into the deep Gulf by the Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate navigation, not wetlands restoration. Plans to fix those problems can't rest on BP's shoulders, nor can they be made by the Gulf states and their communities alone. That's because many of the effects will be felt in states like Missouri and Iowa.

The clean water the Gulf needs still is still lashing out of the sky as rain and snow in America's heartland, but once it hits agricultural soils, it is mixed with excess chemical fertilizers and pesticides and ends up creating not new marine life but a dead zone in the Gulf.  But the necessary reforms in America's farm policies that would reward farmers for producing clean water instead of pollution, again, can't be made in the Gulf states alone. And those national reforms probably need to be thought through in ways that will benefit not only the Gulf but also other important estuaries like Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Puget Sound, and San Francisco Bay.

Getting the Gulf right, in short, means rethinking an enormous legacy of outmoded 20th-century policies on navigation, water, and farming. Although I think Ray Mabus understands that, it's far from clear that he has enough meaningful partners in Washington D.C. to get the traction he needs to make it happen. We're going to have to help him.