A decade ago, in the devastating wake of the Gulf oil spill, Congress passed the RESTORE Act. This landmark legislation not only helped repair the immediate environmental and social damage caused by the disaster, it provided critical funding to improve coastal resilience in Louisiana and other Gulf states.
RESTORE Act dollars sparked an unprecedented effort to restore threatened ecosystems and build long-term resilience to protect people and communities from the impacts of climate change.
I spoke with Natalie Snider, Associate Vice President for Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds at Environmental Defense Fund, about the impact this transformative legislation has had on states like Louisiana in just 10 years.
What is the RESTORE Act and why is it important?
The RESTORE Act took funding from civil and administrative penalties imposed after the Gulf oil spill and put that money into a Gulf coast restoration trust fund. These dollars have been used to enhance community resilience and restore damages to the economy, like tourism and fisheries that were injured in this spill. The legislation created a substantial opportunity for Gulf states and tribes to address long-underfunded issues and address the future impacts of climate change. If we did not have those dollars, we would not be nearly as advanced as we are in getting actual ecosystems restored and protecting communities. More than $2 billion dollars has already been committed in the Gulf States.
Restoration of the Gulf of Mexico is progressing in large part due to the RESTORE Act and other settlement dollars. What examples of coastal restoration exist today?
The RESTORE Act funds a wide variety of restoration projects, including marsh creation, oyster reef restoration, water quality improvements, freshwater reintroduction, restoring natural hydrology, and beach and dune restoration. These projects provide multiple benefits and co-benefits to the ecosystem and the community. One great example is the River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp. This project restores the natural hydrology of the Mississippi River via a canal into a dying swamp. And by doing that, we're putting in freshwater nutrients and a little bit of sediment that helps maintain 45,000-plus acres of swamp amid sea-level rise and climate change.
These projects are typically described as natural infrastructure. What is the definition of natural infrastructure and what makes it effective?
Natural infrastructure projects promote and utilize the natural processes and mimic natural features that were on our landscape originally. If you think about how our coast protected us from the Gulf of Mexico, it was because of wetlands, barrier islands, barrier dunes and oyster reefs that served as a buffer to prevent flooding. A lot of that natural protection has been degraded and disintegrated. Natural infrastructure projects build back those natural defenses. They provide a whole slew of multiple ecosystem benefits to the community – improving water quality, reducing flooding, managing storm water, recharging aquifers and decreasing wave energy.
Why should policymakers prioritize natural infrastructure solutions to address flooding, beyond traditional gray or hardened infrastructure like levees and seawalls?
Natural solutions are less expensive, can be implemented more quickly, adapt to changes over time, create jobs and improve quality of life through cleaner water and recreational opportunities. In some areas, natural infrastructure alone can provide the protection that's needed. In other areas, we need multiple lines of defense where you have the natural ecosystem in front of traditional, hardened infrastructure like seawalls and levees.
What lessons can the rest of the country learn from Louisiana’s example and the potential of natural infrastructure as a conservation solution?
Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and other efforts like LA SAFE have been blueprints for other states and local governments that need comprehensive plans for addressing flood risks, plans that are updated regularly to account for new science and realities and engage communities in the process. Louisiana has been ahead of the nation in comprehensive coastal planning and using science-based decision making to prioritize limited funding.
Why is it vital for states that face flood risks along coasts and watersheds to have a forward-looking, comprehensive plan to address these risks over time?
Louisiana is ground zero of land subsidence impacts and sea-level rise impacts because we're on a delta. So, we were already sinking and had a substantial coastal land loss problem. A plan that is science-based, publicly informed and updated regularly has served as the guidepost for the state’s efforts. Other states are just starting to realize their vulnerabilities and what they can do to address them. The sobering reality of climate change is already here, and while we can’t entirely prevent its impacts, we have the knowledge and tools to protect ourselves. Policymakers from coast to coast have a unique opportunity to learn from Louisiana’s hard-earned achievements and invest in the long-term safety and resilience of their communities.
What are your hopes for Louisiana at the 20-year anniversary of the RESTORE Act?
My hope is that some of the projects, including large-scale sediment diversions designed to reconnect the river to wetlands, will be implemented and begin to restore coastal ecosystems so we can preserve our wetlands as a vital buffer for communities, protect habitat for wildlife and fisheries and maintain the foundation of our culture and way of life in Louisiana. The sooner we can get those operating, the more we'll be able to fight the impacts of climate change. I’d also love to see more comprehensive planning across the U.S.
What challenges remain? What opportunities still exist?
We need bold action to combat climate change as its impacts get more severe. The longer we wait to implement projects, the more sea level rises, the harder they will be to implement, the more expensive they will be to implement and the longer we're more vulnerable. NOAA and interagency partners released an updated technical report earlier this year, showing that sea levels will rise by up to a foot nationally by 2050, and potentially by up to two feet by 2100 depending on rates of emissions. While the findings are stark, we have a window of opportunity now to increase protection for communities, natural resources, and infrastructure across our coasts and watersheds.