Using Advocacy to Enhance Gulf Coast Resilience
The Gulf Restoration Network (now Healthy Gulf) is an environmental advocacy organization that seeks to unite Gulf Coast citizens to protect and restore natural resources. By empowering local communities, taking legal action against industries that have degraded Gulf Coast and community resilience, and monitoring government action to ensure sustainable management of natural resources, Healthy Gulf is helping restore and maintain the natural systems that both define and protect Gulf Coast communities.
The Gulf Coast of the United States is incredibly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Low-lying topography makes the region sensitive to sea level rise and increasing storm surge, challenges that are exacerbated by regional land-use patterns and industry practices. For example, oil and gas extraction activities in the region have destroyed many natural wetlands, reducing coastal flood protection. In addition, regional water quality is threatened by pollution runoff, which may vary with shifting rainfall and flow patterns in the future, affecting both drinking water quality and the health of Gulf Coast ecosystems.
Healthy Gulf is an environmental advocacy organization that is working in a variety of arenas to address regional vulnerabilities, enhance climate resilience, empower citizen advocacy, and promote the responsible management of the Gulf’s natural resources both now and in the future. Established in 1995 as the Gulf Restoration Network, Healthy Gulf has been actively working along the Gulf Coast for over 25 years, and works primarily in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Texas, as well as with upland watershed partners along the Mississippi River Corridor.
Healthy Gulf has a few initiatives designed to improve the resilience of Gulf Coast ecosystems and communities. The Sustaining Coastal Communities Initiative and the Defending Wetlands Initiative are helping regional communities restore natural features to enhance storm protection and resilience. A large part of these initiatives focuses on corporate accountability, demanding that corporate activities that have increased community vulnerability to climate change impacts be rectified. For example, Healthy Gulf is ensuring that fines from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill are used for coastal restoration projects that enhance resilience. Healthy Gulf also works directly with communities impacted by unsustainable corporate and governmental practices, and has helped file several lawsuits to hold companies accountable for resilience losses. Healthy Gulf also monitors water discharge permits issued by the state to ensure they fall within the Clean Water Act guidelines. Similarly, Healthy Gulf monitors wetland permits issued by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make sure all activities that impinge on wetlands are permitted and mitigated so that the region experiences no net loss of wetlands. Maintaining and restoring natural wetlands helps enhance coastal resilience, and monitoring water pollution help maintain the integrity of critical regional water resources.
In a separate effort known as the Protecting Waters Initiative, Healthy Gulf is working to ensure that federal and state governments in the Mississippi River Basin reduce pollutant contributions to the Gulf of Mexico. Under this initiative, Healthy Gulf is attempting to reduce upstream pollutants in the basin to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. The Dead Zone fluctuates in size depending on rainfall and flow regimes, with periods of high precipitation and streamflow delivering higher levels of nutrients to the gulf. With an uncertain precipitation future, reducing pollutant loads can help mitigate potential increases in the size of the Dead Zone.
Healthy Gulf is also working with regional partners to increase community-based adaptation efforts. The nonprofit is encouraging communities and state agencies to develop climate adaptation plans, and joined forces with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance in 2008 to establish a regional plan for climate change adaptation. Healthy Gulf has also supported regional adaptation efforts, including the development of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan.
In almost all of their work, Healthy Gulf utilizes partnerships, expert input, regional data, and technology. Partnerships bring local and national support to different advocacy campaigns, and also help increase public education and outreach. Expert input, particularly legal advice, is critical for ensuring the success of advocacy efforts and for taking legal action to help enhance resilience. Published data, particularly scientific information, is also used to support advocacy efforts and inform local adaptation campaigns. Technology has also been critical to accomplishing various projects; for example, Healthy Gulf uses digital platforms to communicate with the public
Outcomes and Conclusions
Through advocacy, community engagement, and policy monitoring and reform, Healthy Gulf its partners have effectively been protecting and enhancing regional communities, wetlands, and water bodies along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Accomplishments range from finalizing the BP settlement, which will provide $18.7 billion for Gulf Coast restoration, to prohibiting the construction of dams, oil pipelines, and other projects that would undermine ecological and community resilience, and working with local communities to prevent harmful industrial and/or infrastructure developments. Healthy Gulf has also developed a series of digital resources for planning agencies and the public, all of which are available in their online library. Resources include a wetlands protection guide, various regional report cards on water quality and wetlands restoration, and a natural infrastructure discussion paper.
Moving forward, Healthy Gulf hopes to continue its current initiatives and be adaptive, addressing any new challenges that may arise and threaten the integrity and resilience of natural and human communities in the Gulf Region. Healthy Gulf continually evaluates its success by looking at large-scale metrics related to policy change, community engagement levels, and effective resource protection and restoration, including acreage of natural areas protected and money allocated from federal and state agencies to fund the regional restoration. Although Healthy Gulf faces strong opposition from regional industries (e.g., oil and gas), and must compete for financial resources with other groups, it believes that as climate change continues to impact the region, communities, municipalities and the state government will increase their engagement in adaptation and restoration efforts.
Reynier, W. and R.M. Gregg. (2021). Using Advocacy to Enhance Gulf Coast Resilience [Case study on a project by the Gulf Restoration Network]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/using-advocacy-enhance-gulf-coast-resilience (Last updated October 2021)