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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the 2011 National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Congratulations on another great conference. Thank you for inviting me and so many of my colleagues at the EPA and throughout the administration to be a part of this, and thank you for the work you are doing. The science and engineering, the advocacy and community building, the policies you are helping to shape – all of these are vital to our health, to our economy, and to millions of Americans who count on the ecosystems you are striving to restore and preserve.

I know we are here to talk about the Gulf, but I want to begin by saying a word or two about how our ecosystems – and the people that count on them – are a priority for me, and a priority for this administration.

I know from growing up in New Orleans, where the Gulf and the Mississippi River meet, how critically important healthy waters and thriving ecosystems can be. They can determine the strength of our economy and affect our health. Over the long term they shape our history and our culture and our way of life. Keeping our waters clean and our ecosystems vibrant has been part of EPA’s work since the very beginning. It is, in a sense, one of the reasons we exist in the first place. A generation ago, the American people faced almost unimaginable health and environmental threats. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. Lake Erie was declared dead. In Washington, DC, the Potomac was coated with so much sewage that the pollution could be smelled in the city on hot days. In my years at EPA I’ve heard dozens of stories about backyard creeks or local lakes that one day were just too polluted to enjoy – where the ecosystems began to struggle and falter under those pressures.

These circumstances prompted Congress to come together and find bipartisan solutions like the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Ocean Dumping Act. The EPA was created to set and enforce commonsense standards to protect human health and the environment. The 1970s initiated several extraordinary advances in the protection of the water and ecosystems that millions of Americans use for drinking, swimming, fishing and more. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we have doubled the number of American waters that meet safety standards for swimming and fishing.

I have said many times that I want to see another advance in clean water protection like we saw in the 1970s. During my time as administrator, I want to be a part of changes that will benefit American communities for 10, 20, or 40 years down the road. I’m very glad to have the support of President Obama in that effort. In addition to standing with EPA, the president has tasked people across the administration with taking comprehensive and commonsense steps to protect the ecosystems that are so important to our lives and livelihoods.

Since taking office, we have initiated historic new efforts to restore natural treasures like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. We have stepped up efforts on the Bay Delta and Puget Sound. And we are working on commonsense strategies to address nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in waters across the country.

At the same time, broad, interagency efforts are forming to help communities grow in harmony with the ecosystems around them. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities supports the use of green infrastructure and other measures to protect our watersheds and rethink the ways we handle stormwater and other runoff. The Urban Waters initiative is working to reconnect communities – particularly low-income and minority communities – with their nearby waters. Urban Waters is designed to empower them to refurbish and restore waterfronts so that they can become centerpieces of their communities. We’re working with rural communities as well. Just yesterday I was in Warwick Township in Pennsylvania. It’s a small farming community that was recognized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation two years ago as Conservationist of the Year. I went to see first-hand what they are doing to keep their local economy prosperous and their local watershed protected.

And earlier this year EPA came together with other agencies to release a national clean water framework. An important part of that framework was a clarification of what waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. That clarification will ensure the protection of smaller waters that feed into larger ones, keeping downstream water areas safe from upstream pollution. We are also reaffirming protection for wetlands that filter pollution, store water and help keep communities safe from floods.

These are some of the initiatives we have in motion today – and they are all long-term initiatives. That long-term focus also defines what we are doing in the Gulf of Mexico. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon BP spill, we didn’t set out just to clean up the spill and get back to business as usual. President Obama appointed me to chair the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. We are now working with residents and local groups to address challenges that have plagued those waters for years.

One of the most urgent ecosystem challenges we are tackling on the Gulf Coast is wetlands loss. The area holds 30 percent of the Nation’s coastal marsh, about three million acres. The marshland is a critical habitat for millions of birds, and provides wintering ground for 70 percent of the nation’s migratory waterfowl – meaning that it is fundamentally connected to other ecosystems as well. Unfortunately, the Gulf Coast also has 90 percent of the continental US coastal marsh loss. Every 38 minutes, a football field-sized parcel of land turns to open water. Louisiana has lost an average of 34 miles of land per year for the last half century. The region is also averaging estuarine emergent loss of more than 5,500 acres a year.

At the same time we are losing the necessary resources to filter pollution and maintain the balance of the ecosystem, we are seeing rapid increases in nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. In the past half-century nutrient build-ups along the coast have led to increased dissolved oxygen levels. The intensification and expansion of the northern Gulf hypoxic zone – or dead zone – over recent decades has been related to increases in nitrate loading, and scientific consensus supports the conclusion that the condition is linked to eutrophication. The resulting area in the northern Gulf of Mexico over the Louisiana and Texas continental shelf is the largest hypoxic zone in the United States, and the second largest for the world's coastal oceans.

We are also taking this chance to consider the area’s vulnerabilities to the changing climate and sea-level rise. Rising sea levels and growing populations in the area could create serious vulnerabilities in the places where millions of people may someday live and work.

So these are just some of the challenges we have to face as we move towards restoration of the Gulf and protection of the Gulf Coast. We know, and the people of the Gulf know, that a strong and healthy ecosystem supports the economy, the culture and the lives of the people. That illustrates an important point that I will close on.

When we talk about “ecosystems,” it’s easy for people to assume we are strictly talking about migratory birds and marine life and swamp grasses and other elements of nature. But what we have seen over the last 40 years of water and ecosystem protection – and what we have seen in the past two years in the Gulf – reveals an important truth. Ecosystem restoration is just as much about our environment as it is about our people. We are part of the ecosystem around us. It touches our health, it touches our economy, and it effects – in subtle and daily ways – the way we live our lives.
More than 34 million people live and work around the Great Lakes. The waters support billions of dollars in economic activity, and affect the livelihoods of people here and throughout the country. Protecting the Chesapeake Bay is about protecting the lives and livelihoods of 17 million Americans who live in the region and share a 64,000-square-mile watershed. And during the BP spill, we essentially “lost” the Gulf of Mexico for months. We lost the use of valuable fishing grounds and we lost months of tourism dollars. We also lost the intangible things – the benefits of having a thriving, vibrant ecosystem. From that, we learned just how difficult and costly it is to do without those things for a limited time. That was a small price compared to what will happen if we lose the Gulf for good.

Behind all the science and statistics and policies the people in this room work on, are parents who want to know that the water their kids swim in is safe, the memories of a cherished family fishing spot that should be preserved, or the long-awaited dreams of retiring to a home on a beautiful stretch of clean water. This is about protecting resources that are valuable to our health and the health of our children, vital to our economy, and essential to our way of life.

We have many challenges ahead. But anything we face should be achievable for a nation that has come as far as we have in the last 40 years. I look forward to working with all of you. Thank you very much.