I knew a worst-case scenario was unfolding as soon as I heard that the Deepwater Horizon rig blew over one month ago. True to our namesake, we quickly discovered that there is a lot going on below the surface. A growing consensus among scientists estimates that over one hundred million gallons of oil have poured into the Gulf of Mexico so far. Oil booms are ineffective, dispersants are creating a toxic-stratified chemical cocktail throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and BP is still calling the shots while simultaneously dropping the ball.
Our exploration team, from Below the Surface, had plans for a cordial rendezvous with our friends and partner organizations in Louisiana as a follow-up to an expedition we launched down the Atchafalaya River this past February, which is chronicled in the June/July issue of Reader's Digest
Instead we found ourselves in a much different scenario--defense as opposed to offense. As our crew motored in the warm, turquoise waters off the Gulf Coast National Seashore, a National Park, with a pod of 20+ bottle-nosed dolphins, I knew that their fate had been sealed. I did all I could to keep my tears hidden from the other guys onboard behind my aviator sunglasses. The damage has been done; we need to recognize that the disaster has occurred! When I first arrived, I expected to see scores of oiled-birds being taken to the triage centers and thick goo lapping up on the beaches--I was conditioned to the images of the Exxon-Valdez spill.
However, this travesty is completely different from the one that occurred in Alaska over twenty-years ago. That was a spill of a finite amount. This is still flowing, and marine life is taking the brunt of the impact. We've found dead dolphins and dead sea turtles and countless jellyfish (a staple for sea turtles) washing up everywhere despite the fact that the alluring greenish-blue waters and white-sand beaches appeared to be clean. This makes the dispersants a prime culprit. The dispersants in and of themselves are toxic, and the compounds they create when interacting with oil make them even more toxic. Worse yet, dispersants spread oil throughout water column contaminating a higher percentage of the ocean instead of concentrating oil on the surface.
It is fairly safe to say that most containment methods have been for aesthetic purposes. Oil continues to flow, and BP's several attempts at containment have all failed. The contingency techniques and their names offer little assurance: top hat/top kill, junk shot, and insertion. How about a shot in the dark? After all, that's exactly what this is. BP has repeatedly claimed that this type of recovery operation has never been done in 5,000 feet of water. Why then were they allowed to take such a calculated risk by scraping the bottom by the barrel for oil without a response strategy?
Had we invested more in our oceans, this travesty may have been averted or quickly resolved. On the contrary, we know very little about our oceans; in fact, about 90% of our oceans remain unexplored. It is disturbing to think that we have better maps of Mars than of our own oceans. NOAA and other marine exploration institutions are desperately underfunded relative to other fields. For instance, NASA's annual budget would fund NOAA's budget to explore our oceans for 1,600 years. It is time to focus on the reality of issues faced by our planet and America's waterways.
Many feel that this disaster has been worse than Katrina, and the impacts will be felt for a much longer period of time. This man-made disaster has been and will be destructive to the Louisiana coastline for the exact same reasons as Hurricane Katrina--the vanishing wetlands.
What's the Solution?
This solution runs parallel to the discoveries we made while underway on the Atchafalaya expedition, dubbed Gaining Ground. Louisiana loses about one football field of land every hour, which equates to land loss of about 30 square miles per year and is approximately 2,300 square miles since 1930 gone! This is because the highly managed, dredged, and leveed Mississippi River no longer provides sediment to replenish coastal wetlands. In contrast, we found that the Atchafalaya River has the only two growing deltas in Louisiana. This is because the river is allowed to exist in a more natural state and sediment slows down and settles to form new coastal marshland known as accretion (the opposite of erosion).
When we leveed rivers, we lost the resiliency of the entire area; the best thing we can do is open up substantial and strategically placed diversions that flow around 100,000 cubic feet per second to provide the sediment necessary for rebuilding the coast. The river can do the work for us and reverse the damage done relatively quickly!
The hasty, man-made creation of barrier islands off the coast is panic-based, not science-based and may be more destructive to the coast long-term. I spoke with a number of leaders spearheading Gulf Coast conservation efforts and they believe that dredged up barrier islands will be expensive and will fail. They will certainly fail from a hurricane surge and hurricane season begins the first of June. Selectively breaching the levees to let the Mississippi River naturally reconstitute the wetlands is likely cheaper and offers a permanent benefit. Seemingly irreparable damage to wetland marshes has ensued, but nature will rebuild if we rebuild the natural conditions that make it all possible.
With all of the conservation work going on in the Gulf Coast, it seems to me that if it were easy to just build these islands, it would have been done decades ago. Repairing this disaster is beyond our control; the Mississippi River brings over 200,000 dump-truck loads of sediment to the Gulf of Mexico every day. Unfortunately most of that is sent over the continental shelf. We need to match power with power by following nature's model; the river will provide!
To minimize collateral damage, we must stop the use of any and all dispersants. Our public servants must raise the liability cap retroactively and through the roof! In addition, politicians should pass the Bingaman Baucus Senate Bill to provide $900 million per year for conservation from oil revenues. To guarantee transparency within the Unified Command we must create an NGO Representative position to serve as an ombudsman to for a more coordinated front of the well-established and experienced groups in the area. Last, but certainly not least, it would be prudent to focus on the often-overlooked issue of actually stopping the oil flow instead of allowing BP to try to salvage the well.
I returned to the south to help my friends from various organizations and universities because of the care and generosity they have shown me. I believe that they are conditioned to be so hospitable because they are survivors. The ever-giving people in the South are in need of help. Despite all of the adversity bestowed upon the South our fellow Americans are in trouble, their true voices are not getting heard, the truth is not being revealed, and there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered.
Remember, the only way to solve an environmental disaster is to work with nature. In the words of my dear friend and legendary outfitter and guide, John Ruskey, "May the river be with you."
Kristian Anders Gustavson, Co-Founder of Below the Surface.