Water Quality: Beaches Before Aquariums

Gulf Restoration Network and other NGO groups have repeatedly made the point that restoration money spent on addressing coastal water quality problems is an investment in the economy.When Governor Bryant announced a group of ten projects slated for Restore Act funding in December of 2015, he reportedly said the following about the coastal streams restoration component of the plan: “What goes into the Gulf Coast begins in the steams north of here; we will make sure to the best of our ability that it is clean and safe. We believe this will reduce the number of times we have to close the beaches. So, in fact, it will positively affect the tourism economy here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” The Governor himself made this connection between the tourism economy and the quality of the water on the beaches. In our recent comments about these projects, we stated: “If more than just one project out of ten included in the MIP (Multiyear Implementation Plan) addressed improving coastal water quality, it would be more convincing to us that he accepts this connection as a basic truth and is willing to work aggressively to improve the situation.” This Direct Component (Pot 1) portion of the BP Oil Disaster settlement money, loosely termed “the Governor’s Share,” can be spent on infrastructure and economic restoration projects. This funding has the fewest restrictions to connect the money to meaningful ecological restoration projects.Here is a list of some of the ten projects that Governor Bryant and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) published as priorities: a road construction project in Jackson County, a rail and barge facility addition at Port Bienville in Hancock County, high speed internet service improvements for coastal cities, accreditation for a new pharmacy school at William Carey, a new hanger for the Stennis small plane airport at Bay St. Louis, and a new aquarium for Gulfport at the foot of U.S. Hwy 49.Additionally, there is a project exploring new oyster aquaculture techniques and one urban stream restoration project. This stream project is what the Governor referenced when he connected coast water quality and tourism. But, this is not same thing as fixing sewer plants, dealing with faulty storm water pipes, or reducing the bacteria discharge events that close beaches.Several times a year, the coast’s front beaches are off-limits to human contact due to fecal coliform pollution. The beaches south of the proposed aquarium site need funding for storm water and sewer infrastructure. The economic growth that aquarium proponents hope to infuse into Gulfport would be much more likely if the adjacent beaches were safe for human contact and if parents didn’t have to think twice about letting their children wade along those beaches after an aquarium visit. Better water quality will support economic growth and will also lay the foundation for the success of ecological restoration work that may come later from other sources of BP Oil Disaster restoration money.Beginning at the proposed aquarium site and driving a couple miles north, up Highway 49 to North Gulfport, one can find the Forest Heights subdivision which has been cleared by Congress for a Mississippi Coastal Improvement Program (MsCIP) levee repair project. This is an infrastructure project to prevent flooding during storm surges and fits several of the requirements for spending Direct Component funds.The Forest Heights levee project helps build resiliency to future storms and flooding (flood protection) , and is on a larger list of vetted and approved federal spending projects in the Mississippi Coastal Improvement Program created cooperatively by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve resiliency in the face of storms and climate change. This levee project will improve the economic outlook for an entire neighborhood. The non-federal match for this project is $4.9 million. The Federal share is $9.1 million. Several MsCIP projects, including the Forest Heights levee, were authorized in the 2014 Congressional Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).The aquarium gets $17 million, and has the biggest price tag of the ten MIP projects. For less than one third of this cost, the levee infrastructure project, meeting several of the MIP criteria, could secure its required matching funding and help Mississippi citizens with resiliency to flooding and future storms.Addressing the need for improved levees and pumps to protect a neighborhood is a basic way to revive the economic health of the people there. Economic development is supported by cleaner water, usable beaches and healthy seafood. Infrastructure for flood protection, improved stormwater and wastewater treatment is an investment in economic recovery for Harrison, Hancock and Jackson Counties.Andrew Whitehurst is GRN’s Water Program Director lives in Madison Ms. and works on water and wetland policy in Mississippi.

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