Last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst environmental disaster in this nation's history. But the gulf's health has deteriorated for decades. The restoration plan the Obama administration and the gulf states put forward this month marks an opportunity to begin reversing the ecological and economic damage to a vital national ecosystem.
The president established the gulf restoration task force last fall in the aftermath of the BP disaster. Its purpose was to use the spill as a launching point to examine the broader ecological health of the gulf and to develop a plan for improving it. Eleven federal agencies, in coordination with the five gulf states, crafted a strategy for moving from the spill response to a longer-term recovery.
The recommendations are not altogether new. The plan calls for working in the upper Mississippi watershed to curb agricultural and urban runoff that flows into the gulf. It would protect coastal areas and wetlands, which are essential to marine habitat, by putting restoration on an equal footing with navigation and flood-control efforts. As the task force noted, Louisiana alone lost 1,883 square miles of wetlands in the last 70 years, an area roughly the size of Delaware.
The plan, though, is the first of its kind to integrate restoration efforts by federal, state and local authorities. That is the only way to push a broad agenda that ranges from improving water quality and the health of marine resources to protecting against coastal erosion and the effects of climate change. The plan builds on the cooperative relationship that the federal government and the gulf states established in the wake of the BP crisis. And it lays the foundation for science, not politics, to drive the restoration process.
More importantly, the task force has reminded the nation that BP is not solely responsible for the modern state of the gulf. While much of the repair work will depend on collecting spill-related fines from BP, and on Congress directing this money to the gulf, the restoration effort must evolve into a new regard for environmental planning. That is as essential for the gulf economy as the gulf's ecosystem. Florida and the other gulf states should welcome this commitment to shared responsibility.