Gulf Restoration

08/10/2010 05:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even without the BP oil spill, estimates are that Louisiana has been losing wetlands the size of a football field every 40 minutes. The major culprit behind this loss is intervention by human beings. Often, it has been the oil industry carving disruptive shipping channels though the marshes. Other times, it has been willful neglect as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has diverted the mighty Mississippi's flow for navigational purposes. In doing so, the Corps has deprived the wetlands of a natural buildup through regenerative silt.

Everyone wants to make amends to coastal Louisiana, but it is best not to do so by trying to replicate nature. Duplication of natural wetlands is extremely complex, and not surprisingly, we have had a dismal record in that regard. Better to facilitate the opportunity for nature to run her course. It will take longer than a patchwork human effort would, but the end result will be for more biologically diverse and sustainable. The ever present risk of unintended negative consequences from human experimentation with damaged habitat will no longer be a factor. (e.g. moving sand around can end up "robbing Peter to pay Paul", and trampling through the ecologically sensitive marshes to remove oil can do more harm than good).

So how do human beings grease the skids for "nature to take its course"? First, by closing unused canals and halting destructive channelization projects and dredge and fill operations in the midst of the Louisiana wetlands. Accompanying such actions must be a reversal of the structural damage that contributed so much to wetland erosion in the first place. That means removing the levee system that the Army Corps of Engineers installed on the Mississippi River for improved navigation and flood control. The river will then be able to flood silt-starved areas in the Mississippi Delta that once contained some of the state's most biologically productive wetlands that also served as important buffers against hurricanes.

Such a massive river diversion won't happen over night, and will be costly -- it is estimated between one and two bill dollars annually for the next 10 years.

But that is what it will take to repair the damage. And who better to finance such restoration than the federal government and oil industry, both of which played such prominent roles in the loss of one-third of the state's wetlands over the past 70 years.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, now available for pre-order.