It has been six years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and while many improvements have been seen, the effects on the Gulf states continue to be felt. Under the RESTORE Act signed by President Obama in July 2012, money from the trust fund set up by BP is dispersed through five avenues, or “pots” of money. Florida’s Gulf Coast counties can obtain funding through direct funding to the county (Pot 1) via the treasury department, or through the Gulf Consortium (Pot 3) to the Gulf Council.
Under Pot 1, a multi-year plan was submitted to the US Treasury and was approved in 2015. Hernando County is able to access $815,314. Those funds cannot be used for infrastructure improvements or other capital projects. While Pot 3 has $12.7 million available, it is not available all at once, but spread out over 15 years.
On July 25, 2016, the Gulf Consortium’s consultant sent a request to the 23 affected counties asking for “projects, programs and activities” which would be used to develop a State Expenditure Plan (SEP) for the use of the $293 million in the fund (the amount given in the memorandum). Aquatic Services Manager Keith Kolasa was happy to oblige, and forwarded three potential projects to the Consortium by the due date of September 2, 2016.
Kolasa shared with the BOCC the projects he nominated, and all involve improving the coastline and marine habitats. All of the projects will take time, and the proposed cost may change.
The first project is to create 10 more artificial reefs over the next 10 years, both offshore and nearer the coast. Monitoring and maintaining the reefs through participation from dive clubs and schools will be an important part of the program. The funding request for this project was $720,800 for the first 10 years.
The second project is to enhance oyster reefs and develop living shorelines. Oyster reefs are also important as they present foraging areas for fish, Kolasa said, by creating habitats for small marine animals out of various materials.
Through the efforts of the Sea Grant Agent, Brittany Hall-Scharf, several areas have been identified that could be viable for an oyster reef. Up to eight oyster reefs are planned for development or enhancement over the next seven years. Kolasa said data has been gathered for the permits and a meeting with DEP has been held. Volunteers will be needed to set and monitor the reefs. The funding request for this portion of the project was $307,000.
Living shorelines help to control erosion, and the oyster reefs help with this by providing a breakwater. Plants like marsh grasses can then grow in the shallow water, which hold the soil and allow small creatures to flourish. Kolasa stated this is a better option than a seawall.
Potential sites include Jenkins Creek, where Kolasa noted has some erosion, and Linda Pederson Park, where fishing habitat can be improved. Seawalls and canals may also be potential areas which could be stabilized by the living shorelines and oyster reefs. Kolasa stated this would be an excellent opportunity for school involvement, using a program called “grasses in classes”. The funding request for this project was $267,000.
The third project is what Kolasa called hard bottom mapping and characterization. This will involve determining what is there, and the health of the habitat, such as coral, turtles, and other marine animals and organisms. Critical habitats will need monitoring, and there is a timeline of three years for this project, which will cost $150,000.
Kolasa has a long list of other projects he would like to begin. The three he proposed could be approved in the short term, but there are many ideas that could also be looked at within the next few months. He plans to nominate some of those other plans soon.
County Administrator Len Sossamon stated that he and Commissioner Dukes, as well as Assistant County Administrator Brian Malmberg had begun the process several years ago, and though the process has been slow, money is now becoming available. The anticipated amount they will receive from Pot 3 will be around $900,000 a year for the projects.
Partnerships are helpful, and Kolasa mentioned that the University of Florida’s new Marine Enhancement Reporter program may speed up the permitting process. He also stated that UF’s Law Clinic and Nature Coast Science Center/Center of Excellence are also working with his office and with Scharf.
Scharf, who works through the UF extension office, explained some of the contacts she has made and areas they have looked at for the oyster reefs and living shorelines. Scharf stated she has been in contact with Tampa Bay Watch, a 501c3 organization who is "dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Tampa Bay estuary through scientific and educational programs."
The BOCC voted unanimously to approve Kolasa’s proposed projects. The week of October 24, 2016, Sossamon stated that individuals from Inspector General’s office and the US Treasury in Washington, DC will be visiting and interviewing both staff and commissioners regarding their process. Field visits to see the proposed project sites will also be conducted.