Gulf-wide and Mississippi Focused Projects Unveiled in Funded Priorities List

About a month after BP’s settlement with the Gulf States and the Federal Government, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council released its first group of proposed projects in a Draft Funded Priorities List (FPL). There is a mix of state-based and Gulf-wide projects. There are five projects that focus on restoration, research and education in Mississippi, and several projects with a regional focus containing components that include Mississippi. The Council’s newly published Draft FPL contains a much needed project that supports the study and protection of river-flows to the Gulf. This fresh water flow investigation project is in the Gulf-wide projects in the Category 1 grouping. Category 1 gets funded first, while Category 2 projects are held in reserve. The project would fund planning for study of base-line river flows, analysis of stream gages to measure flows in rivers across the five Gulf States, and develop an on-line flow measurement software tool. Most importantly, it has a pilot project to apply this research to a coastal river in Mississippi.Overall, the projects on the Council’s new Draft FPL list are well-considered and strategic because they follow ecological needs rather than jurisdictional boundaries and focus on ten key watersheds across the Gulf States; the Mississippi Sound is the area of focus for our state’s project list. The FPL will launch projects that spend the BP Clean Water Act penalties and other oil spill restoration funds over the next 18 years. Mississippi’s five major projects in the Draft FPL include: 1) Building more of Deer Island through beneficial use of dredge spoil; 2) Strategic land protection and conservation through land purchase; 3) Funding Sea Grant education and outreach; 4) Creation of the Mississippi Sound Estuarine Program; and 5) Enhancing opportunities for the beneficial use of dredge spoil sediments to create land in the Mississippi coastal zone.The river flow study project has a broad Gulf-wide focus, but also contains a Mississippi component. The project description states that a large coastal river watershed in Mississippi, (most likely the Pearl or Pascagoula), will be used in a pilot project to evaluate how resource management actions change streamflow metrics, and how reservoir operations and water withdrawals may affect freshwater and estuary ecosystems. These questions desperately need answers based on sound science before more damaging alterations are made on our coastal rivers. Now the money is here to perform the studies that can provide some answers.The Pascagoula and Pearl systems rank #3 and #4 in fresh water discharge to the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Only the Mobile and Apalachicola systems deliver more. Sills, locks, and the Ross Barnett Reservoir Dam disrupt the Pearl River and Jackson wants a new flood control lake on the river. A possible new dam and lake are in the planning stages for Big Cedar Creek, a Pascagoula tributary in lower George County. Both of these rivers systems also sustain significant permitted water withdrawals for municipal and industrial uses. Both systems have existing stresses raising many fresh water flow questions in need of answers. We have regionally important rivers that feed the Mississippi Sound and keep it functioning as an extended estuary bounded by barrier islands. The Council is clearly thinking big, and prospectively about fresh water flow issues Gulf-wide and in Mississippi, and it should be applauded for writing a river-flow study project.Gulf Restoration Network has always emphasized the importance of keeping adequate fresh water volumes flowing down rivers to coastal estuaries. In our comments on water and wetland projects in recent years we’ve urged caution when developers or flood control districts propose alterations to rivers that can reduce flows through increased lake evaporation and risk changing the cycles and timing of flows downstream to swamps, coastal estuaries and bays. River fragmentation (damming) and water withdrawals diminish river flows. Lately the message of concern about fresh water flow has been picked up and amplified in new places, and we welcome the support. For instance, this summer the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources published the Oyster Council’s report of final recommendations for oyster restoration and targeted fresh water flow to the coast, and threats from “inland fresh water depleting projects” (dams) as subjects to study and consider. The State of Mississippi and the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council both recognize the need to understand and study fresh water flows from our coastal rivers and effects on the estuary. Support for this work is welcome and timely.Comments on the full Funded Priorities List (FPL) are due September 28th. Click here to read the Draft FPL. There will be a public meeting about all the projects in Biloxi on September 10th at 5:00 p.m. at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum Room D, 2350 Beach Blvd, Biloxi. Comments can be mailed to Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, Draft FPL Comments, Hale Boggs Federal Building, 500 Poydras Street, Suite 1117, New Orleans, La. 70130. Email comments to: draftfplcomments@restorethegulf.orgAndrew Whitehurst is GRN’s Water Program Director and covers Mississippi Water and Wetland Issues.

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