05/21/2010 06:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Irreplaceable National Treasure

Whether you drive an SUV, a fuel-sipping hybrid, or even take the city bus, there's a good chance that the vehicle's fuel was oil produced, imported, or refined by Gulf of Mexico energy production infrastructure where the ongoing BP oil disaster is taking place. That fact is not going to change overnight. Even if Congress responds as it should by passing a climate bill that lessens our dependence on fossil fuels, the transition to a clean energy future will take years.

Today, America relies on the Gulf's vast network of wells, rigs, pipelines, refineries, and servicing facilities for 27 percent of its oil and 32 percent of its natural gas. And for the past month we've all watched in horror as the destruction of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig brought Americans' energy use directly into conflict with one of its most fragile and threatened natural wonders: Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta wetlands.

The national treasures at risk are irreplaceable. First, there's the sea life. The area under threat produces the largest total seafood landings in the lower 48 states. Louisiana's fishery produces 50 percent of the nation's wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40 percent of its oysters. In fact, 90 percent of all the marine species in the Gulf of Mexico depend on coastal estuaries at some point in their lives, and most of those estuaries are in Louisiana.

Then there are the birds. The delta wetlands are a vital wintering or resting spot for more than 70 percent of the nation's waterfowl. They are relied upon by all 110 neo-tropical migratory songbird species. Right now is the middle of migration season, when as many as 25 million of these delicate and beautiful creatures pass through the soon-to-be oil-soaked delta wetlands on any given day.

And, of course, there are the people. Louisiana's unique bayou and New Orleans cultures are both partially protected from hurricanes by the wetlands and rely upon them for economic activity and recreation. Just like West Virginia coal miners, many residents rely on energy industry jobs to put food on the table, and too many have sacrificed their lives to the job of providing us with energy. Their neighbors, fishermen, now worry about the future of their livelihood. They define a part of America that must not be lost.

The delta wetlands are the result of a 10,000-year-old war between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The river builds land by pushing sediment and freshwater out into the Gulf, the sea fights back with waves and salt water. Until the late 1800s, the river was winning, building a square mile of new land each year that would be colonized and held together by wetland plants.

However, the industrial revolution allowed people to control and deepen the shipping channel by keeping the river from flooding into the wetlands, and people brought salt water into the fresh marsh by dredging canals for pipelines and transportation. This activity straight-jacketed the river.

As a result, since the early 1900s, coastal Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, more land mass than the entire state of Delaware. Now we watch to see how the less than 5,000 square miles of remaining, already-weakened wetlands respond if the sea washes ashore many hundreds of thousands of gallons of spilled oil.

Our nation ships its agricultural produce through the Mississippi River, and we grow our economy on the oil and gas produced and processed in the river's delta. Offshore drilling was invented in Louisiana, where the first well was drilled in 1937, and quickly progressed to fueling our mechanized victory in World War II and post-war growth thereafter. So if the principle - we broke it, we bought it - applies anywhere, it applies here. As President Obama said last week about the disaster, all parties bear responsibility. "That includes, by the way, the federal government."

It remains to be seen how long the spill will last, how the wetlands will respond, and how effective cleanup will be. BP and its partners must be fully responsible, and held accountable, for the impacts of Deepwater Horizon. But the nation - government, industry, and citizens - is responsible for the broad decision whether to reverse a century's worth of damage by committing to reconnect the river to its wetlands. Will we unshackle its ability to fight against the sea? This will not be cheap; in fact it will cost billions. But if the spill reminds us of anything, it should be that we all benefit, every day, from this dying natural treasure. Its loss will cost us far more than its restoration.

Paul Harrison is Senior Director for the Mississippi River of the Center for Rivers and Deltas at Environmental Defense Fund.