The Obama administration did the nation — and Florida in particular — a great service by putting forth an ambitious plan to restore the Gulf of Mexico. The blueprint unveiled this month could, over time, begin to reverse decades of man-made damage that hammered the gulf long before last year's historic oil spill. The federal government and the states must follow through to protect this rich ecosystem and national economic treasure.
The plan, by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, comes 20 months after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore rig exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and releasing 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf in what became the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history. President Barack Obama formed the task force to coordinate restoration efforts by the five gulf states, nine federal agencies and a host of business, research and nonprofit groups. While federal officials are still assessing the environmental damage from the spill — and the financial penalties to impose on BP and its partners — the plan will act as a guide for spending gulf restoration funds.
The 128-page plan includes no major surprises. The strategy calls for restoring habitat and water quality, and replenishing salt marshes, dunes, oyster and coral reefs and other coastal and marine resources. Many of the details will hinge on the federal environmental assessment. But the plan, written with the help of the states, has specific priorities for Florida and other gulf states. And the restoration effort is far broader than a mere reaction to the Deepwater spill. It seeks, for example, to reduce the flow of pollution by removing nutrients from the upstream Mississippi River watershed. And it calls for a new awareness of ecological impacts when making decisions about navigation, flood control and land management.
The document's real value, though, is in making the case to treat the gulf as an interconnected system. Its coastal and marine environments support a rich variety of wildlife and habitat. And those natural resources are essential to the nation's economy. The gulf provides more than 90 percent of the nation's offshore oil and natural gas, and one-third of its seafood. It's home to important ports that move some of the most cargo in the country. If the five Gulf Coast states were a single country, its economy would rank seventh in the world. Restoring the coastal beaches, commercial fisheries and tourism is vital for the states and essential for any national recovery.
Audubon of Florida was one of the first groups to praise the plan, calling it a road map that will benefit the gulf for years to come. Congress can help by approving legislation that would earmark 80 percent of all Clean Water Act fines collected from those responsible for last year's spill for gulf restoration. It only makes sense to spend fines imposed for damaging the gulf on repairing that same body of water. That money would quickly translate into jobs in Florida and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. The parties that came together on this plan need to continue working as partners if this rich ecosystem and the economic opportunities it provides are to have a healthier future.