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Make Sure the $16 Billion for Gulf Restoration is Well Spent

TPCollins Deer Island
Sunset over Deer Island, Mississippi © Terese P. Collins

Opinion by Larry McKinney and Chris Robbins
(This piece was originally posted on NOLA.com, February 15, 2018)

In the shadow of New Orleans’ legendary Mardi Gras festivities, the city recently hosted a much more sober affair—one that can make or break the Gulf of Mexico.

At the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science conference, scientists, decision-makers and conservationists grappled with a central question: How effective are we at measuring and monitoring progress on restoring our Gulf? At $16 billion, this is the most ambitious and expensive ecosystem restoration in history. It came at a high cost. The BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy remains the worst environmental disaster in the United States, and it is up to us to see that this investment produces positive, lasting results.

Our national track record of learning from restoration projects is not inspiring. Harte researchers reviewed more than 192 oyster restoration projects entered into the National Estuaries Restoration Inventory—and, despite federal requirements, monitoring data was not available. No lessons were learned to be passed along, there was no way to tell if over $45 million and thousands of hours of labor was effectively used or wasted.

This must not happen in the Gulf.

An important development on that front has been a set of best practices from the trustees of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment. These practices, called adaptive management, gauge the progress of projects and fix those that are underperforming. It has been applied successfully in several restoration efforts in the United States. We are keenly interested in how state and federal restoration entities will work together to implement adaptive management in the Gulf.

A review of three case studies collated by Ocean Conservancy shows multiple benefits. We found that other states are using this approach to save money, reduce risks and increase impact. For example, using adaptive management to test-drive a smaller, experimental project to restore a floodplain in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta allowed California to justify and confidently invest $500 million in a bigger, more expensive project.

To quote Dr. Robert Twilley of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, who spoke at the conference, “Adaptive management is how we document performance and report back to stakeholders. That’s accountability.”

Ultimately, each restoration project implemented in the Gulf, or anywhere, is an experiment. Designing projects and programs to accommodate the potential for unexpected changes just makes sense.

To their credit, the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees have taken the important first step of developing best practices for adaptive management. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council needs to do the same. The trustees now need to take the critical next step of putting it into practice through funding and implementation on land or out on the water. Only in this way can trustees and the council demonstrate they are wisely spending precious restoration dollars and assure the public the Gulf is being restored as promised.

Our Gulf states and coastal communities made tremendous sacrifices in the wake of what happened in April 2010. As with any investment — and especially this one that aims to restore one of the nation’s most enduring and important economic engines — it is important to minimize risks and optimize returns.

True failure would be to never learn from our mistakes. Adaptive management will give us the strongest foundation for continuous learning and improvement. And it is our chance to become a successful case study for the world to emulate years from now, when the Gulf of Mexico is healthy and thriving once again.

Our hope for that future is that the Gulf of Mexico will be not be defined by the disaster that marred us but by the strength of our purpose and the success of our endeavors to restore our home.

Larry McKinney is the executive director of the Harte Research Institute. Chris Robbins is senior manager of restoration planning in the Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Restoration Program.

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