Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 2nd 2014

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The Gulf Coast’s Big Plan

Drawing Up the RESTOREation Blueprint
by Jeremy Morrison

The federal government and BP are still entrenched in the courtroom in New Orleans and it remains to be seen what bounty eventual Clean Water Act penalties will amount to.

Whatever the final dollar amount, the RESTORE Act mandates that 80 percent of it stays in the five states most impacted by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Locally, officials have been salivating over hypothetical estimates ranging from $100 to $200 million.

As BP and the government plod toward a final number in Louisiana, plans for spending the economic windfall—the “game changer” as its often referred to—are continually unfolding. Most recently, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council made a lap around the region collecting public input on its Draft Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy.

The council was established by the RESTORE Act, and oversees the allocation of funds collected through the Clean Water Act penalties. The comprehensive plan—a final version of which will be released in July—is meant to offer a framework for implementing a coordinated, region-wide restoration effort.

The council’s first stop on its public input tour was earlier this month in Pensacola. The house was packed. It was Justin Ehrenwerth’s first day on the job.

“Thank you for giving us some of your time to help get this thing right,” said Ehrenwerth, the recently seated director of the council.

The director noted some stickers he saw circulating amongst the Pensacola audience. The stickers stated “RESTORING Our Environment RESTORES Our Economy.” A 9-year-old from Biloxi had mailed Ehrenwerth some—”it was just adorable, I have that framed in my office”—and he said the council’s plan was guided by such a philosophy.

“That’s something that we very much embrace, that concept, and really like the button,” the director said.

Pitching the Plan

The restoration council got a good bit of feed back during their Pensacola town hall. Local officials, environmentalists and area business leaders all weighed in.

“Just like our other sister gulf states, we’re trying to define what does restoration mean to us and how are we going to solve the problems that are within the Gulf of Mexico?” Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson told the council. “We realize the impact we took in 2010, we realize what RESTORE is going to mean to us.”

The local reception of the draft plan, with its focus on research-based ecosystem restoration efforts, was overall positive. People urged the council to focus on the gulf’s fisheries, long-term research efforts and a region-wide approach. Council members were encouraged to take advantage of local knowledge and agencies. And to avoid “analysis paralysis.”

Christian Wagley—local environmentalist and member of the Escambia County RESTORE Advisory Committee—voiced a concern shared by a number of speakers at the Pensacola meeting. He joined them in asking the council to put priority on efforts that address water quality issues throughout the region.

“I would ask you to place the highest value on projects that improve water quality,” Wagley said. “The reason for that is that when we restore, when we do restoration projects—let’s say seagrass beds or oyster reefs—those projects are always going to be limited if the water quality is not sufficient to support them. And using our local bay system as an example, unfortunately, our Pensacola Bay system is one of the most degraded, if not the most degraded systems in the state of Florida.”

The Framework

Once an agreement or settlement is reached between the government and BP, 80 percent of that amount is allocated to the Gulf Coast. Of that amount, the restoration council is responsible for about 60 percent of it.

The council’s draft plan, and ultimately its final plan, provides a formula for restoration. It details goals, objectives and criteria. The draft follows the release in January of this year of The Path Forward to Restoring the Gulf Coast, and builds on the work of the council’s predecessor, the Gulf Cost Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.

The draft plan lists five goals:  restoring and conserving habitat; restoring water quality; replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources; enhancing community resilience; and revitalizing the gulf economy.

The plan implies that the council intends to focus on restoring dunes, wetlands and oyster reefs. It is looking for projects that tend to fisheries, reduce nutrient and pollutant discharge into local waterways, and promote environmental education. The council also stresses that decisions will be made based on scientific findings.

The plan outlines four criteria that the council will use when evaluating proposed projects. The restoration council will consider which projects offer the “greatest contribution to restoring and protecting the natural resources … without regard to geographic location within the Gulf Coast region; which ones involve large-scale programs aimed at restoring and protecting natural resources; which are also included in states’ comprehensive plans; and which strive to restore long-term resiliency of the natural resources most impacted by the spill.

The list of proposed projects in line for the RESTORE money continues to grow. As of mid-June, there have been nearly 800 projects, with an estimated total cost of $13 billion, submitted to the state of Florida. Proposals are being submitted by state and local governmental agencies, as well as by private citizens.

The council’s draft plan may be viewed at restorethegulf.gov. Public comment may also be made online. The restoration council has not yet set up an avenue to accept project proposals, but the state of Florida is accepting proposals at dep.state.fl.us/deepwaterhorizon.

With the draft plan having made its public debut and initial tour of the Gulf Coast, the restoration council plans to incorporate the input gathered and release a final plan in July. After that it will be selecting and publishing a Funded Priority List, a list of projects and programs the council intends to fund over the next three years, and also adopting a Ten-Year Funding Strategy, a description of how RESTORE funds will be allocated.

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RESTORE in Escambia

A portion of the funds collected via the Clean Water Act penalties will be divided up among the five Gulf Coast states. In Florida, some of that money is headed directly to the eight counties most impacted by the oil spill. Escambia, effectively Florida’s frontline during the spill, will be receiving the largest amount of that pool of funds.

The Escambia County Commission—which has the final say on the local funds—has been discussing the ramifications of RESTORE funds since before the act was passed into law. Local officials appear to lean toward using the money to fund economic development and infrastructure projects, noting that state and federal pots (or “buckets,” as Ehrenwerth calls them) of the RESTORE funds are geared toward environmental efforts.

In an effort to guide their decision regarding the funding, the commission has formed an advisory committee. It meets regularly in anticipation of the money.

“I think it’s going great, so far,” said Bentina Terry, who chairs the advisory committee.

Some of the conversation locally has revolved around the “vision” vs. “shovel ready” debate. The advisory committee continually hears from various camps. The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce is lobbying for up to $60 million to be spent buying land and preparing turnkey industrial sites, while others are pushing for projects that focus on water quality, or bigger picture issues such as community health and educational needs.

The commission’s advisory committee has begun slowly and methodically. After receiving tutorials on the intricacies of the RESTORE framework and its multiple layers—lots of charts and graphs—the committee is now hearing from community stakeholders. The onslaught of specific projects awaits on the horizon.

Terry describes the committee’s process as “thoughtful”—“there won’t be this rush”—and said she’s expecting its work to continue for quite a while.

“My gut is longer than people think it should, but not long enough for us,” she said.

The month of May was devoted to hearing from the area’s business community. Presentations were made by a collection of regional chambers of commerce. This month, members heard a presentation from Brice Harris, associate director of the University of West Florida’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement.

The advisory committee has slated environmental presentations for July. Area environmentalists are currently working to craft their message.

“We’re hoping that with every project that’s presented, they’ll have a set of criteria that asks the important environmental questions that need to be asked,” said 350 Pensacola’s Elaine Sargent, who has been active in coordinating local environmental groups in the context of the RESTORE conversation.

Escambia County RESTORE Act Advisory Committee
WHAT: The local RESTORE committee will be focusing on environmental concerns during July.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Monday, July 1 and 15
WHERE: Escambia County Government Building, 221 Palafox Pl.
DETAILS: myescambia.com/restore