Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A look at RESTORE Act implementation

What would you do if you had about a billion dollars for ecological restoration?

That's exactly what the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (or, Council) is trying to figure out. That's no easy task given that the Council is a powerhouse, high-level government entity composed of the five Gulf Coast governors and six executive branch Cabinet members (think secretaries of Agriculture, Interior, Homeland Security, Commerce, EPA administrator, etc.)The Council came into being when President Obama signed the RESTORE Act last year. That Act put 80% of the Clean Water Act fines BP and Transocean are going to pay for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill into the hands of the Council. It's the largest pot of money for restoration in the US ever.

Question is, how do you even go about spending that much money in a time when any sort of surplus in government hands seems like the work of a divine hand, and so usually gets cannibalized in the ritual sacrifices that follow? [Update: the sequester is already taking a 5% toll on RESTORE Act funds] Well, this Council has a comprehensive plan. More accurately, as of late last week the Council has put out their initial comprehensive plan that describes the principles for how it will distribute money to various Gulf Coast restoration projects and programs. I had the chance to read it; here are my initial reactions:

1. "The decisions made pursuant to the Plan will be based on the best available science, and this Plan will evolve over time to incorporate new science, information, and changing conditions. The Council will coordinate with the scientific community to improve decision-making." (5)It's a living, breathing document. It's meant to change over time, as funding levels and priorities change, but also with new science. Whether scientists can tell them what they want or need to hear, is of course another question.

2. No one actually knows how much money there is, since so much of it is tied to pending litigation. The number could go up past 10 billion when BP pays up.

3. The plan doesn't actually spell out how the Council will fund anything, nor what it would most like to fund. A funding strategy and priorities list come later.

4. "Storm risk, land loss, depletion of natural resources, compromised water quality and quantity, and sea-level rise are imperiling coastal communities’ natural defenses and ability to respond to natural and man-made disruptions." (4) It's clear that the Council sees ecosystem health as fundamental to community health, though no necessarily vice versa, and that this means a weaker ability to adapt to future climate and other disasters.

5. Scientists do seem to have gotten across the point that restoring species alone, on postage-stamp size sites is not the best approach to restoration. "The Council recognizes that upland, estuarine, and marine habitats are intrinsically connected, and will promote ecosystem-based and landscape-scale restoration without regard to geographic location within the Gulf Coast region." The planners apparently see themselves as immune to geographic bias and politics, and there's some good landscape ecology here.

6. It only comes up once, but it's unclear what the role of the private sector is here. However, much ado is made about coordinating with other efforts, in general: "The Council will encourage partnerships and welcome additional public and private financial and technical support to maximize outcomes and impacts. Such partnerships will add value through integration of public and private sector skills, knowledge, and expertise" (7) There are a growing number of voluntary restoration projects in the works, not to mention talk of linking up with California's cap and trade scheme for wetland blue carbon credits, and how to coordinate these market sector activities with a federal plan will be worth watching.

7. You don't spend a billion dollars and not have anything to show for it. "The Council recognizes the importance of measuring outcomes and impacts in order to achieve tangible results and ensure that funds are invested in a meaningful way." (7) There's an opening here for ecosystem services accounting, but we'll have to wait and see.

8. The money quote from the whole thing is the Council's definition of ecosystem restoration. That's kinda what they're about anyway:

"All activities, projects, methods, and procedures appropriate to enhance the health and resilience of the Gulf Coast ecosystem, as measured in terms of the physical, biological, or chemical properties of the ecosystem, or the services it provides, and to strengthen its ability to support the diverse economies, communities, and cultures of the region. It includes activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity, and sustainability. It also includes protecting and conserving ecosystems so they can continue to reduce impacts from tropical storms and other disasters, support robust economies, and assist in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change (per Executive Order 13554)."

There's a lot going on here! What is restoration? Well, it's not just bulldozers and backhoes, it's methods and procedures. In other words, it's science and technical expertise just as much as it is new wetlands. Watch for this to become controversial, with conservationists claiming that not enough money is being spent on the ground in actual projects. What's the goal? Health, resilience, and mitigation of climate impacts. It's not clear to me that there isn't potentially a huge tradeoff between the ecosystem health and ability to mitigate climate impacts, but we'll see. How do you get there? You initiate or accelerate recover, or you protect and conserve. And finally, how do you measure it all? Straight out of the CWA, it's physical, biological, or chemical properties. Or, ecosystem services.

9. The last point is, again, the Council won't be just drawing on existing marine and wetland science, and they won't just be incorporating the best available science as it hits the presses, they're producing it. The sense is that there's a lot yet to figure out yet in the planning, technical assistance, and implementation phases of restoration, and that the Council is more than ready to dish out money to "evaluation and establishment of monitoring requirements and methods to report outcomes and impacts; and measurement, evaluation, and reporting of outcomes and impacts of restoration activities." (15) The question will be, what kind of science is the Council interested in funding?