Where are we with BP Restoration projects focused on coastal water quality improvement in Mississippi?
To answer this, you can tally the relevant project types that have been announced thus far from the various funding streams resulting from the BP disaster settlement. Three main funding sources are the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA), RESTORE Act, and The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).
Of all the projects announced under these headings, I count six in Mississippi that focus on water quality in coastal rivers, bays or the Mississippi Sound. Not one of the projects directly addresses water quality with current spending for repairs, or upgrades to any sewage collection or treatment systems. Sewage and urban nutrient loading were identified as the most pressing coastal water quality problems by a series of Community Conversations held two years ago in coastal counties, funded through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
One of the six projects, funded by NFWF is the Mississippi Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. The plan identifies water quality restoration as a priority. It will be used to evaluate projects that apply for NFWF funding, but it could provide a scientific basis for deciding to spend other streams of BP restoration money. The plan is comprehensive, ambitious, and uses available data to evaluate proposed projects. It’s built around a web-based assessment system - the Mississippi Comprehensive Ecosystem Restoration Tool (MCERT), which rolled out in November 2015.
The approved project that comes closest to tackling identified water quality problems is an engineering design contest to propose a better way to handle the beach stormwater outfalls that now discharge under Highway 90 into the Mississippi Sound all along the coast.
Four other projects focus on water quality in various ways. A project to record water quality data, restore stream reaches, and purchase conservation lands along Turkey Creek in Gulfport is funded by NFWF. Additionally, the Coastal Streams Habitat Initiative – also funded by NFWF – will install Best Management Practices to improve riparian (streambank) habitat and decrease sediment in nine coastal streams. A Mississippi Sound Estuarine Program will be supported by RESTORE FPL funds (Pot 2), as well as a Gulf-wide project to study stream flows into estuaries in five states – the latter will have a pilot flow project on one of Mississippi’s coastal streams – probably the Pearl or Pascagoula.
At this point, we’ve seen several rounds of BP project funding announcements and much fanfare each time. Over two years, we’ve seen these six water quality projects above, along with announcements of spending for a baseball stadium, aquarium, an airport hangar, barge docks, high speed internet infrastructure, roads, a NASA visitor center, boat launches, and a beach promenade, among other projects that build marshes, living shorelines, and oyster habitat.
The economy of the Mississippi Coast was built on fishing and ports for shipping lumber. Good water quality is still a vital basis for the economic growth, especially since the tourism sector continues to flourish. Inviting more people to come see the coast means we want them to enjoy the water. That water should be in better shape, with fewer beach closures and health advisories. Directing more BP restoration project money to upgrade storm water and sewer infrastructure is needed and makes sense to support the economy, public health and the way of life for coast residents.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Water Program Director and works on Mississippi water policy issues.