An early review of the 94 projects thus far submitted for funding through 2012’s RESTORE Act indicates coastal Alabama could be fortified from the impacts of future development and potential disasters through the purchase of thousands of acres of conservation easements, the restoration of miles upon miles of natural reefs and eroded wetlands and the engineering of several multimillion dollar infrastructure projects generally geared toward reducing the human footprint on what’s proven to be a vulnerable coastal ecosystem.
Of the projects, which are being submitted on an ongoing basis to a website maintained by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, more than 90 percent have a primary classification of being ecological or environmental in nature. However, many are also tagged with secondary classifications noting their intent to promote economic development, tourism, coastal flooding resilience and infrastructure improvements, among other things.
When and if the court system ever settles the amount of civil penalties and criminal negligence associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council will pick and choose which of the projects are eligible to receive funding from what could possibly be a $1 billion infusion from the defendants in the case, primarily oil and gas conglomerate BP.
It’s still very early in the process, those familiar with it often attest, but on Oct. 14, the U.S. Department of the Treasury finalized rules allowing for gulf states to apply for and receive grants available as a component of the RESTORE Act. For its part, the state recovery council will be tasked with evaluating the projects submitted to its online portal, and forwarding those that meet strict criteria along to the Treasury for funding.
The 94 projects currently in the queue are individually sponsored by local governments, nonprofit organizations and even private LLCs. Often characterized as a coastal restoration “wish list,” the dollar figures attached to some of the projects make the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog look modest.
The Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Consortium seeks $132 million for a comprehensive, sustainable, long-term oyster plan. The town of Dauphin Island seeks $58.6 million for the restoration of its West End Beach and barrier islands.
The city of Fairhope submitted a $49 million proposal for the acquisition of an environmental corridor and construction of an 84,000-square-foot educational facility. Mobile Baykeeper wants $42 million to help restore the flow of tides and floodwater blocked for the past 60 years by the existence of the causeway.
If every one of the 94 proposed projects were fully funded today, $611 million of Alabama’s potential $1 billion settlement would already be spent. And still, several projects have yet to be proposed.
Notably absent from the portal today is the Mobile County Commission’s $40 million proposal to build a soccer and aquatic facility in West Mobile, which Commission President Connie Hudson suggested would be forwarded earlier this month. There are also no submissions from the cities of Mobile or Bayou la Batre, both of which have a seat on the recovery council. The state Port Authority has submitted just a single wetlands mitigation project, when it is widely expected to seek additional funds for larger economic development projects.
Meanwhile, several private entities are looking for a handout. The GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf Coast seeks $10 million to secure “blockbuster” exhibitions and programming. The upscale, waterfront subdivision of SaltAire wants $20 million for a nature and education center. The owner of the 112-acre Gulf Highlands property on Fort Morgan peninsula wants $35 million in exchange for a promise to keep the parcel and its half-mile of gulf frontage in its current, natural state.
Still other projects appear duplicitous. For example, if the Sea Grant Consortium were awarded its $132 million oyster project, would there be a need to fund smaller, but related oyster project proposals from the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama ($2.5 million), the Alabama Cooperative Extension System ($240,671) or Alma Bryant High School ($478,000)?
Probably not, according to Casi Callaway, the executive director of Mobile Baykeeper.
“What I understand is the council will take those similar efforts into account, and instead of being immediately funded may ask the organizations to come together and work together,” she said.
Callaway referred to the portal as an “idea generator,” where seeds of coastal restoration are first planted before they grow.
“The next big step is to create a multi-year implementation plan, assuming we have X dollars and outline all the projects we can do within those years,” she said.
During the early development of the state recovery council last year, Callaway advocated for a citizens’ seat at the table, but decisions about which projects will ultimately be funded will be made by elected officials representing the cities of Mobile, Bayou la Batre, Dauphin Island, Orange Beach and Fairhope, as well as representatives of the Baldwin and Mobile county commissions. Gov. Robert Bentley and Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons also have seats on the council, which was formally established by the RESTORE Act legislation.
Regarding the project submission timeline and evaluation process, Lyons could only speculate about when the council would act.
“We haven’t officially decided anything and haven’t talked about timing,” he said last week. “We [may] put a draft out for public comment during the first quarter and probably look at making final decisions during the second quarter.”
Lyons said like Callaway, he has also kept an eye on the proposals as they are submitted.
“I’ve looked at a lot of projects that have been submitted through the portal,” he said. “There are some very good ones, some that are questionable – they run the whole gambit. I think we’re going to hopefully be making some selections towards the middle of next year.”
Referring to the Port Authority’s proposed wetlands project, Lyons said it was something they had been working on for years, but RESTORE Act funds can make it a reality.
“We are looking at taking something we’re having to do all the time, dredging, and taking that material and rather than pumping it into a contained area, putting it out and using it for building wetlands,” he said. “We can take some of the money we spend during the normal course of our dredging process along with RESTORE money and build and create wetlands that have been lost over the years.”
Lyons could not say whether the Port Authority would be submitting any economic development projects, but Eliska Morgan, the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Recovery Council, spoke generally about the shortage of projects primarily classified as “economic” on the list.
“As projects are submitted, if an economic development project were to rise to the top as a (potentially funded project), there would be a more in-depth review of the impact on the economy,” she said. “I cannot give you a definition of that, but I think that is what will be important.”
Morgan also noted that some projects on the portal may not be eligible for funding through the state council’s process, but can still benefit from other programs established to compensate for the oil spill.
“Our portal is a one size fits all for projects to be considered for [National Fish and Wildlife Foundation funding], [RESTORE Act funding], [early restoration funds] and everything,” she said.
In other words, the projects listed online could be submitted for separate federal money if the state feels like they’ve got a good shot of being funded by some other means. In the interim, as the many different players jockey for a position near the top of the list, it looks like the state council will have a lot of legwork just to get to that point.
The lingering, physical effects of the world’s largest oil spill on communities such as Saraland, Prichard, Foley, Daphne, Spanish Fort and even Fairhope are debatable, but that hasn’t stopped the municipalities from forwarding a combined $103 million worth of projects for consideration. In Spanish Fort, Mayor Mike McMillian justified his $21.5 million proposal for the “Spanish Fort Ecological Park” with an argument that the stream it would be built around is vital to the gulf’s entire food chain.
“It’s the perfect location for a park used for recreation and education by the public and (should be) preserved from future development,” he said of the 95-acre parcel adjacent to Bay Minette Creek. “That’s a growing area for small shrimp and fish and everything that feeds into the gulf – it makes sense to obtain and protect it.”
But in an example of what the state recovery council may have to consider, McMillian alluded to a separate project he’s interested in – one that may clearly conflict with another on the table. Whereas Mobile Baykeeper is interested in opening up the causeway to restore the Mobile-Tensaw Delta’s historic hydrology, McMillian said the city of Spanish Fort may want to construct an amphitheater somewhere along the road, for entertainment and conservation purposes.
“The worst thing we can do is overdevelop it,” McMillian said, acknowledging that he hasn’t “heard a lot of feedback from the council on individual projects, but I understand they have full plate and I’m sure there will be more conversation when the time comes.”
Callaway meanwhile, said all projects would be subject to extensive environmental reviews and periods of public comment.
“We are monitoring the submissions with a coalition of other organizations and have created a criteria sheet to review each one,” she said. “What we are seeing is some are wonderful – coastal conservation systems and land reclamation projects – but some look more expensive and deal with private property and private ownership. The challenge will be to look at all of it and determine what has the most lasting results.”
In the end, if the RESTORE Act lives up to its acronym, its goal is to sustain “resources and ecosystems” while providing for “tourism opportunities and revived economies.” With a mission so broad and proposals so numerous, the estimated $1 billion could conceivably be spent in no time.
Jason Johnson contributed to this report.
Top 10 proposed public expenditures
Town of Dauphin Island – West End Beach and Barrier Island Restoration Project ($58,601,000) A project to widen the beach to its natural elevation and install a dune system using an offshore sediment source. The objective is to increase island longevity and reduce over wash by nourishing the beach and dune system. In addition, the project would protect existing infrastructure and habitats that would otherwise be subject to degradation if the current land loss trends continued.
City of Fairhope – Fairhope’s Coastal Environmental Education Network ($49,000,000) An integrated ecological system linking the 108-acre Fly Creek Nature Preserve to the 800-acre Auburn University Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center using natural drainage systems as well as walking, hiking, and biking trails. Infrastructure improvements include highway improvements and a 84,000-square foot educational facility with a 400-seat auditorium.
Alabama State Port Authority – Upper Mobile Bay Marsh Creation Project ($22,000,000) Achieves environmental restoration through the construction of an emergent tidal marsh using sediment from the maintenance of the Mobile Harbor project. The project will consist of the design, permitting and construction of a containment structure to allow the placement of sediment associated with maintenance of the Mobile Bay navigation channel. This beneficial use of sediment over several years will achieve environmental restoration by creating an area with optimum conditions for creation of a functional emergent tidal marsh habitat.
City of Spanish Fort – Spanish Fort Ecological Park ($21,250,000) A project to acquire and preserve 95 acres on Bay Minette Creek to include, elevated nature boardwalks along the wetland areas, construction of an interpretive center/lodge (including classrooms), an outdoor amphitheater, boat/canoe/kayak launches, wildlife enhancement areas (osprey platforms, wood duck boxes, educational kiosks/signage, etc.) and walking trails.
City of Fairhope – Mobile Bay Preservations and Restoration; Lower Fly Creek Reach Project ($14,700,000) Applying certain measures for the long term protection of the watershed including gully repair within the acquired 108-acre tract, sediment removal from Fly Creek, replanting of native plants, culvert overfall repair, and control of federally noxious listed plants. Proposes long term protection from development, adverse stormwater impacts, turbidity and sedimentation.
Town of Dauphin Island – Aloe Bay Harbour Town ($14,346,382) A mixed-use development at the foot of the Dauphin Island bridge to preserve and increase nature habitat for aquatic and avian wildlife, create a facility for the public to view the wildlife, create a new marina for public and commercial use, fishing pier and commercial buildings. Harbour Town will serve as an attraction destination for tourists, locals and commercial visitors.
City of Saraland – Wastewater Treatment Facilities Upgrade ($10,129,000) This project requests funding to implement a complete renovation of all existing equipment while the facility remained operational. The upgrades and modifications to the Saraland WWTF include improvements to: automated screening and removal facilities for large debris and fine sand particles, SBR biological treatment facilities, pumping components, ultraviolet disinfection, digestion and dewatering facilities of the sludge, and installation of filters to enhance treatment to reduce levels of nutrient in particular Nitrogen and Phosphorus.
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Marine Resources Division – Enhanced Fisheries in Ecosystem Monitoring in Alabama’s Marine Waters and the Gulf of Mexico ($9,306,000) This project will use sampling programs to monitor the long-term sustainability of the marine resources. The project will expand or supplement current programs to provide fishery independent and dependent data to conduct a comprehensive suite of statistical and modeling analyses to characterize the impacts and longevity of the DWH disaster and the recovery of the ecosystem by natural processes and associated restoration projects.
Baldwin County Commission – Fish River Watershed Restoration Project ($8,500,000) A project intended to restore floodplain wetlands within the Fish River watershed and submerged aquatic vegetation in Weeks Bay and lower Mobile Bay, and to prevent further degradation of ecological resources through improved stormwater management and sediment retention.
City of Gulf Shores – Oyster Bay Wetlands Preservation and Enhancement Project ($8,021,180) Proposal to secure the permanent protection of 350 acres of valuable coastal marsh habitat in properties running from the northeast corner of Oyster Bay and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway southward to the shoreline of Oyster Bay.
Town of Dauphin Island – Fill Borrow Pits Dug in 2010 to Protect Against Oil Spill Damage ($5,600,000) A project to fill holes dredged on the northern side of the barrier island of Dauphin lsland in May 2010 in response to the BP oil spill to build small sand piles and dunes as a defense against the impending surface oil slicks.
Top 10 proposed private expenditures
MS/AL Sea Grant Consortium – Sustainable Gulf Coast Oyster Restoration and Coastal Protection using Central Oyster Hatcheries and Gulf State Remote Setting Sites ($132,000,000) A comprehensive long-term oyster restoration plan that restores habitat, improves water quality, revitalizes the economy of the Gulf oyster community, replenishes living coastal and marine resources and enhances community resiliency by revitalizing the Gulf oyster industry economy.
Mobile Baykeeper – Mobile Causeway Hydrologic Restoration Project ($42,030,941) This project proposes to restore historic hydrologic connectivity between the Mobile/Tensaw Delta and Mobile Bay. Reconnecting the tidal exchange will ensure the productivity of the estuary. The exchange will have significant ecological benefits to the water, flora and fauna that live within Alabama’s significant estuary, all of which were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Gulf Highlands, LLC – Gulf Highlands property acquisition ($35,000,000) Objective is to acquire the last large, privately held parcel of beach/dune habitat in coastal Alabama, providing for the protection and management of 113 acres with 2,700 feet of Gulf frontage including beach and dune habitat for endangered species.
Bay Area Properties, LLC – SALTAIRE Western Shore Mobile Bay/Fowl River Nature & Education Center ($20,000,000) A project to obtain 186 acres for preservation and to provide shoreline stabilization, marsh restoration, recreational opportunities and a 4,000-square-foot educational and administrative facility.
GulfQuest (National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico) – Exhibitions and program development ($10,000,000) The funding will help GulfQuest underwrite the fees and expenses associated with hosting blockbuster exhibitions for four years, including the marketing expenses required to promote these exhibitions throughout Alabama and the Gulf Coast region. GulfQuest will also establish three new interactive galleries focused on Gulf of Mexico marine life, the Gulf seafood industry, and recreational fishing in Gulf waters and develop related programming.
Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium and Auburn University – Gulf Coast Environmental Research Station ($9,000,000) A project to establish the Gulf Coast Environment Research Station (GCERS). The GCERS will be a science and engineering facility where researchers from MESC institutions will focus on restoration and sustainability of the physical, chemical, and economic resources within Alabama’s unique coastal environment.
Alabama Wildlife Federation/Coastal Conservation Association – Alabama Artificial Reef Plan, Phase I ($8,236,000) Seeks inshore deployments or enhancement of eight artificial reefs, deployment of two new inshore reefs, reef base for five natural gas or oil rigs, the deployment of 300 6-foot tall pyramids, 250 juvenile fish shelters and offshore deployments of 50 high relief structures, 10 offshore fish attractant devices and one large ship.
Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority – Southeastern Mobile County Branch Lines/Shellfish Protection and Water Quality Study ($7,955,218) A project that intends to mitigate and prevent further future damage to oyster and other habitats and wildlife caused by poorly-functioning septic systems in Southeastern Mobile County and construct branch lines for sewer service.
Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatic Sciences –Habitat enhancement of marine fisheries off coastal Alabama ($7,592,500) To mitigate the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by increasing access to the reef-fish fisheries by substantially increasing reef habitat through a large artificial reef deployment program, providing a robust assessment of the effectiveness of this habitat enhancement, and providing valid scientific data to confirm that gulf seafood is free from DWH oil spill related contamination.
Dauphin Island Sea Lab – DISL Research Building ($7,000,000) Construction of a new 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art research facility that can support both resident scientists and visiting scientists from the 22 member institutions of the 40-year old Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium (MESC).