Restoring the flow of sediment to Gulf Coast wetlands and barrier islands that are key wildlife habitats and provide crucial protection from storms is one of the biggest challenges officials face as they seek to restore a region whose long-time ecological problems came into focus after last year's disastrous oil spill.
The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force held its fifth and penultimate public meeting on Monday in Galveston, Texas -- itself an eroding barrier island -- in a palm tree-lined conference center whose panoramic windows overlook the Gulf of Mexico.
Previous public sessions, along with eight months of behind-the-scenes work being done by the task force since it was established by President Barack Obama, have highlighted the concern of officials and residents who live in the five states that border the Gulf -- regions where the economy, culture and lifestyle hinge on the health of the waters, said Lisa P. Jackson, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and chair of the task force.
"Getting that sediment back to the habitat is going to be very important," Jackson said.
Sediment -- the nutrient-filled sand and rock -- are the structural foundation of the Gulf's ecosystem. This sediment helps ensure the health of the barrier islands and wetlands that provide homes to birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife, but also provide natural barriers from storms for millions of people who live along the hurricane-prone Gulf coast.
The task force has to present Obama with a report of its findings and a strategy for resolving the issues by October.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who is also a member of the task force, said one source of funding for the projects is $1 billion BP has agreed to dedicate toward Gulf restoration. Of that money, each of the five states will get $100 million for their projects. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce will each get an additional $100 million. And $300 million will be distributed accordingly to other crucial projects.
The oil spill that began with a fatal explosion on April 20, 2010 on the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon was the impetus for establishing the task force. But the region's problems -- including the decrease in sediment flow -- has long been known, especially to those who live in the region.
Terrence Salt, principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the army, said sediment flow has decreased due to management of upstream rivers and land conservation practices. For example, the Mississippi River -- a major source of freshwater and sediment to the Gulf of Mexico, its islands and wetlands -- has about half the sediment it originally had, he said.
"The shared goal is to be as smart as we can about where we put those sediments," Salt said.