Those of us living in central Texas, several hundred miles from the coast, may not think the Gulf of Mexico matters to us much — except as a vacation destination. But actually, it matters a lot.
A host of high-level officials from the federal, state and local governments, scientists from a whopping 66 academic institutions, representatives of businesses such as seafood and oil and gas and leaders of nearly a dozen conservation organizations recently met in Houston for the second Summit on the State of the Gulf of Mexico. Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico at Texas A&M Corpus Christi and one of the organizers, said the event was intended to get people moving in a common direction. Its four days covered everything from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to new drilling activity, efforts to deal with sea-level rise and land subsidence, research on what exactly a healthy Gulf ecosystem looks like and everything in between. There’s no way to cover even a fraction of the subjects discussed in one article, but here are some highlights.
First, why you should care. The planet’s ninth largest body of water, the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 90 percent of offshore oil and gas produced in the U.S., and a third of our seafood — 1.2 billion pounds worth $661 million a year — as well as 44 percent of the recreational fish catch. Like tuna? The Gulf is the only place Atlantic bluefin tuna spawn.
If the five states around the Gulf — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — were a country, its economy would rank seventh in the world, at about $234 billion annually.
If the five states around the Gulf — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — were a country, its economy would rank seventh in the world, at about $234 billion annually. The Gulf’s ports receive seven of every 10 pieces of cargo arriving from ocean transports in the US.
Texas has 367 miles of shoreline include the bays, lagoons, and estuaries and you’re talking more than 3,000 miles — and our 18 coastal counties are home to 26 percent of our population, and four of the top ten ports in the country.
More than half of the continental US drains into the Gulf, through the Mississippi River watershed as well as dozens of lesser rivers. Those rivers carry freshwater into coastal bays and estuaries, shallow, calm bodies of water that make great nursery habitat for the young of many economically important fish and shellfish in the Gulf. Without enough healthy estuary habitat, you can kiss goodbye sea trout, red drum and other tasty fishes.
The increasing human demand for water means less of it from our rivers actually reaches the Gulf these days, though. The water that does get there is increasingly laden with chemicals from urban and agricultural run-off. Nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers used on crops promote excessive growth of algae, which causes a decrease in oxygen in the water. This creates a “dead zone” where most marine life can’t live, that grows larger every year. In summer of 2011, it covered roughly 7,000 square miles.
In response to the problems caused by what rivers carry to the Gulf, federal officials announced at the conference a $50 million allocation to the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service for projects in seven river basins to improve water quality, conserve water and create wildlife habitat. One of the seven is the San Antonio Bay watershed, which includes the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers. San Antonio Bay is home to our famous whooping crane population.
Nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers used on crops promote excessive growth of algae, which causes a decrease in oxygen in the water. This creates a “dead zone” where most marine life can’t live, that grows larger every year. In summer of 2011, it covered roughly 7,000 square miles.
Also at the conference, The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, established by executive order Oct. 5, 2010, released its final strategy report. This is a restoration blueprint that represents input from nearly every possible interested party in the region (the task force held more than 40 public meetings). The strategy lays out a series of actions that member agencies can take, based on existing authorities. The document itself recognizes that it is only a first step; whether or not any of its recommendations are ever acted on, only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the federal government is still figuring out just who is to blame for Deepwater Horizon and how much damage it did. Those decisions will affect who pays how much in fines under the Oil Spill Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act. The total could be as much as $20 billion. Legislation currently before Congress would send that money to the Gulf, which makes sense to a lot of people in the region.
“It is almost inconceivable that this money would not come back here to do what needs to be done,” says Laura Huffman, director of The Texas Nature Conservancy. “The ability to get the money from those fines is the single biggest opportunity for the Gulf in years.” Without new legislation, those billions of dollars (the low-end figure is still $5 billion) go into the general federal treasury, and based on past experience, precious little of it is likely to end up in the Gulf area, or in environmental restoration.
Senate Bill 1400, the RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, dedicates 80 percent of monies from the fines to restoring the Gulf ecosystem and economy. As we went to press, the bill was still pending and any action before the holiday recess seemed unlikely.