With unanimous approval from commissioners earlier this week, Mobile County added another 40 acres to the 400 it has already purchased in the Big Creek Watershed, part of a multi-million dollar wetlands acquisition project funded through the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP).
Created by Congress in 2005, CIAP was a one-time program aimed at protecting oil-and-gas producing states by utilizing royalties from oil production companies.
Alabama was one of six states eligible to receive the funding from 2007-2010, with its Department of Conservation of Natural Resources receiving $58 million, Baldwin County receiving $14 million and Mobile County receiving $17.4 million.
One of the few authorized uses for CIAP funding are projects and activities for the conservation, protection or restoration of coastal areas, including wetlands.
“We purchased 400 acres of land in the Big Creek Watershed in 2009, but there was a 40-acre parcel right in the center that the seller at the time was not willing to part with,” Mobile County Environmental Services Director Bill Melton said. “The CIAP program allows for the purchase or acquisition of these properties for conservation, preservation and enhancement.”
The project was originally made possible by $2 million in grant funding, but amendments submitted by the county later yielded an extra $1.6 million to help enhance the environment of properties that had already been acquired.
So far, the county has used $3.6 million in CIAP funding to purchase and maintain more than 680 acres of floodplain and wetlands in the area, including the 440 acres acquired in the Big Creek Lake Watershed, the sole source of Mobile’s drinking water since the early 1940s.
“By nature of where this property is located, it’s protecting the drinking water,” Melton said. “These are environmentally sensitive habitats, and any time you can buy a property for something that’s a little more green than what some other buyer would use it for, you’re going to do the environment some good.”
According to Melton, the lands have been acquired from multiple owners, all of whom were voluntarily sellers. The federal grant program also requires the use of Yellowbook pricing for purchasing the properties.
Melton added that tight deed restrictions and grant requirements prevent the county from developing or re-selling property acquired with CIAP funding, protecting it from human encroachment forever.
Further, the county plans to make required enhancements to rid the property of invasive species like Kudzu, Japanese climbing fern and others that can pose a threat to plants indigenous to the wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico.
Tina Sanchez, an environmental grant writer for Mobile County, said managing invasive species is a difficult process that can take years to complete, but over time it increases the survivability of both the land and the natural species that inhabit it — like the endangered gopher tortoise, for example.
“It’s about managing and enhancing the habit where we can so that it serves its natural function,” Sanchez said. “When the Europeans first arrived here, this was a longleaf pine ecosystem.”
In the last few years, the county has also used its CIAP funding to plant longleaf pines throughout its land acquisitions.
Sanchez said any maintenance performed after the CIAP funding has been exhausted would be minimal and likely be limited to regularly scheduled controlled burns when resources can be allocated.
Melton said his department has also discussed the routine maintenance of the properties being managed by some type of county board in the future, but said that hasn’t yet been fleshed out. He also said a federal grant like CIAP opens the door to use other federal funding sources such as the RESTORE Act.
Accordingly, the county’s environmental department recently submitted a $4 million project proposal to the RESTORE Act’s online portal that would build upon the current wetland acquisition project. Melton said, if approved, it would include the purchase of more property for conservation.
According to Melton, the county is looking at acquiring separate waterfront parcels along the delta near the Mobile River Delta Marina, Campground and Welcome Center, which itself was created using $1.5 million of CIAP funding. Melton said if such areas are able to be acquired, they might “better lend themselves to use by the public.”
Public use was one of the issues mentioned when the recent 40-acre parcel was discussed by commissioners last week, but Melton said the area in the Big Creek Watershed really wasn’t set up for public use. For conservation purposes, he said it could benefit the natural habitat of those wetlands to limit their public access.
Meanwhile, whether it’s the wetlands’ role in the ecosystem or in the area’s community development, a shift to a more “environmentally friendly” mindset among municipal leaders isn’t something that’s only happening in Mobile. Roberta Swann, director of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, said disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have put a greater emphasis on protecting the area’s coastal resources.
“I don’t think anyone is advocating to purchase every single piece of property in the area, but we can be strategic about purchasing certain parcels just to protect the environment,” Swann said. “That area is growing, and it’s going to see more of an impact from stormwater runoff and other things. You’re not going to stop that growth, but you certainly can do it in a better way, and land acquisition is part of that.”
Swann, director of Mobile Bay NEP since 2004, said the current commissioners are “more educated” about the need for environmental projects not because they’re “tree huggers, but because they know it plays a role in Mobile’s overall community development.”
Even Melton indicated these types of environmental projects were “no priority” of the commission in the past, and said his department is thankful for the change.
Commission President Connie Hudson, who has worked to utilize CIAP funding for projects like the new Mobile County Recycling Center, said the projects are “examples of the commission’s interest and commitment to protecting the county’s natural resources.”
“People used to say they ‘had some swamp to sell,’ as a joke, but it’s not a joke anymore because it’s valuable,” Melton said.
“Environmentalists like us have realized the value of these wetlands, and they have a lot of value for the environment.”