Mississippi’s conservation game plan
Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund supports unprecedented state effort to guide coastal restoration
Restoring an oyster reef along the Gulf of Mexico might seem like a relatively simple task – just pick the right spot near an established reef and add new material to which young oysters will attach. Pretty soon, new oysters should be filtering water and providing essential habitat for fish, crabs and shorebirds.
But nothing is simple when dealing with coastal conservation work. The success of such a seemingly straight-forward project actually depends on a bewildering array of factors. Polluted runoff flowing into upstream waters could threaten to undo the restoration. Coastal erosion might be changing tidal flows and increasing wave action at the chosen reef site affecting the project’s sustainability. Another restoration project close by might be siphoning off available personnel and materials.
Such challenges and considerations increase exponentially with a project’s scale and scope. So, too, does the need to understand the inter-relationship between conservation actions undertaken by nonprofits, private landowners and a variety of local, state and federal agencies.
Along the Gulf of Mexico’s northern coast, the need to guide conservation investments in a comprehensive way has been amplified by a wave of restoration dollars tied to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Hundreds of millions of dollars have begun to flow into the region, with billions more expected in the coming years.
In Mississippi, state officials have developed a way to make sense of it all, to make sure conservation dollars are put to the best possible use. The key, they say, is to invest in a really good game plan.
ADDRESSING THE IMPACTS OF THE 2010 SPILL
Mississippi might have a relatively short coastline – about 60 miles along the Gulf of Mexico – but its coastal conservation challenges are similar to those found in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana or Texas. All Gulf Coast states must contend with similar impacts caused by human population growth, urban development, loss of wetlands, decreasing water quality and quantity, coastal erosion, invasive species, storms, and sea level rise.
Devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 greatly compounded these conservation challenges. Five years later, things got even worse. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded about 40 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. Crude oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from a failed well about 5,000 feet below the rig. For three months, all attempts to cap the well failed. When the flow finally stopped on July 15, an estimated 314 million gallons of oil had leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.
The spill impacted fish and wildlife and virtually all types of marine and coastal habitats, from the ocean floor to the highly productive estuaries along the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the spill negatively affected everything from planktonic organisms (including larvae of many important marine species) to birds, fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, submerged aquatic vegetation, oyster reefs and coral reefs.
The spill also disrupted human communities throughout the Gulf region, hobbling everything from seafood harvesting to tourism and economic development.
“It would be hard to overstate the impact Katrina and the oil spill had on life in coastal Mississippi, on both ecosystems and human communities,” said Gary Rikard, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). “Hundreds of thousands of people live along the Mississippi coast, and many depend on our natural resources not only to enjoy a high quality of life, but also to make a living.
“The oil spill, following on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, left the region in dire need of a comprehensive restoration strategy.”
GUIDING INVESTMENTS FROM MULTIPLE SOURCES
Though it would take years for legal cases related to the oil spill to wind toward resolution, some environmental restoration work began quickly after the disaster struck. These early efforts received a boost in 2013, when a U.S. District Court approved two plea agreements resolving certain criminal cases against BP and Transocean. The agreements directed more than $2.5 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to fund projects benefiting the natural resources of the Gulf Coast that were impacted by the spill.
As part of that overall amount, NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF) will receive more than $356 million through 2018 specifically designated for natural resource projects in Mississippi.
In early discussions on potential restoration efforts, officials with MDEQ emphasized the need for comprehensive planning and an adaptive management approach to restoration and conservation efforts. A statewide plan would need to coordinate funding across different programs to maximize broader outcomes for the Mississippi coast.
In 2014, the GEBF made a $3.6 million award to MDEQ to fund the development of a comprehensive ecosystem restoration plan for the Mississippi Coast. With an emphasis on best available science and public input, the resulting Mississippi Restoration Plan outlines a coordinated, systematic and transparent process for sustainable ecological restoration.
The plan helps state leaders and NFWF prioritize projects in order to make funding recommendations that optimize environmental benefits along Mississippi’s coast. Projects are also vetted using a suite of geospatial analysis models called the Mississippi Comprehensive Ecosystem Restoration Tool (MCERT). This tool was developed to assimilate data across the applicable habitat types, model their interactions, and visually display the outcome of potential restoration efforts.
The Restoration Plan and the MCERT analysis tool will also help decision makers recognize and take advantage of synergies between additional funding sources related to the spill.
The largest of these funding sources has yet to be fully tapped. In October 2015, BP, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas reached an agreement to settle the remaining governmental civil claims arising from the oil spill. The $20 billion settlement, which was finalized and approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in April 2016, resolves the U.S. government’s civil penalty claims under the Clean Water Act, the state and federal claims for natural resources damages under the Oil Pollution Act, and also a related settlement of economic damage claims of the Gulf states and local governments. The settlement dollars within this framework that will fund natural resource restoration activities under both the RESTORE Act and the NRDA process will be paid by BP over the next 15 years.
Officials in Mississippi and elsewhere along the Gulf hope that much of the $20 billion settlement can be used to build upon conservation successes achieved through quick-response actions, NRDA early restoration and GEBF funding.
"Conservation funding arising from various spill-related legal settlements represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help fish, wildlife and human communities in Mississippi and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast,” Rikard said. “To make the most of this opportunity, we must plan, coordinate and implement projects in a way that maximizes their benefits.
“This will be a long process, involving multiple funding sources and many scientists, non-profit organizations, contractors, and experts from local, state and federal agencies. It’s essential that everyone is on the same page.”
NFWF continues to work closely with key state and federal resource agencies to analyze proposals and select projects to support with GEBF funds. Projects are awarded after extensive consultation with MDEQ and federal agencies.
By early 2016, the GEBF already had awarded nearly $88 million for 12 projects in the state.
Work directly related to the state’s extensive planning process is already underway. GEBF grants awarded to MDEQ include:
- $21.6 million for the beneficial use of dredge material to restore coastal marsh habitat. The long-term project spans planning, construction and monitoring of marsh habitat in three bay systems along the Mississippi Gulf Coast: St. Louis Bay, Back Bay of Biloxi, and the Pascagoula/Escatawpa systems. Re-establishment of coastal marsh will create habitat for living coastal and marine resources, reduce erosion along bay shorelines, improve water quality and provide protection from storm surges and sea-level rise for communities and infrastructure.
- $17.4 million for land acquisitions that protect coastal habitats and promote resilience. This project seeks to enhance coastal habitat connectivity and increase core conservation areas within the Mississippi Coastal Preserves system, the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Priority parcels have been identified using MCERT, and the project will leverage approximately $13.5 million in RESTORE funding.
- $11.8 million for oyster restoration and management: this project will improve oyster populations and sustainability in coastal Mississippi through assessment of cultch-type, research into the effects of contaminated oyster shell on recruitment, and baseline water quality and benthic habitat assessments in the Mississippi Sound. The project also includes a pilot nearshore “oyster gardening” program to produce oysters for conservation purposes.
“Foundationally, we think about laying down ‘blocks’ of restoration in Mississippi that we can build upon at every step of the way,” said Marc Wyatt, director of MDEQ’s Office of Oil Spill Restoration. “Everything flows downstream. We invest in land conservation and habitat conservation to accrue water quality benefits downstream. It doesn’t work from a bottom-up approach.”