Despite the positive response to the first collection of projects proposed by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (GCERC), director Justin Ehrenwerth said the group’s biggest challenge going forward could be prioritizing the interests of the five states and six federal agencies the council comprises.

In 2012, Congress passed the RESTORE Act, which for the first time gave the coastal states more control over the financial penalties assessed to the companies responsible for a man-made disaster — in this case, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The GCERC, or federal council, oversees one of five funding streams established by the legislation and is responsible for addressing the recovery and sustained health of the Gulf Coast.

While visiting Mobile Sept. 1, Ehrenwerth gave some insight into what the council does.  

“Our mandate under the RESTORE Act is to facilitate restoration without regard to geographic location,” Ehrenwerth said. “We’re supposed to take the Gulf, eliminate the state lines and just look at the ecosystem. Of course, that’s a challenge.”

Ehrenwerth said the challenge comes from balancing the interests and even the ideals of those who sit on the council. The governors of each affected state — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — hold a seat on the council along with representatives from six federal agencies, but there is no set formula for distributing the billions that will ultimately be awarded by the council.

In other words, the funding will be a project-based competition with no state guaranteed any funding at all. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be an issue in the draft of the council’s first Funded Priorities List (FPL), which focused on 10 key watersheds across the Gulf as opposed to state boundaries.

Ehrenwerth said that decision wasn’t an accident.

“In focusing on those 10 watersheds, we hope we’ve put forward a framework that makes sense, meets the requirements of the RESTORE Act and doing the right thing for the Gulf,” he said. “But we’re at the very beginning of something. We’re trying to build something with the dollars we have and in anticipation of what will come.”

The money available now is somewhere around $240 million, all of which came from a settlement with co-defendant Transocean Ltd. in 2012. When and if the $18.7 billion settlement between the Gulf states and BP is finalized, 30 percent of that money will fall under the authority of the federal council.

Last year, when the council announced its selection process, it drew backlash when it was revealed that only council members would be allowed to submit projects for funding consideration. Each member is limited to five.

Ehrenwerth explained that decision was made because the council members are the “only ones with the authority to fund projects.” However, he assured there was much input from outside sources and the existing federal agencies on the council during the selection process for the first FPL.

Of the 50 projects officially proposed, Ehrenwerth said there were more than 300 “components,” which were each reviewed by a team of three volunteer scientists — one from the state who proposed the project, one from elsewhere in the Gulf and one from outside the Gulf region.

Ultimately, Ehrenwerth said the council is guided by a few broad criteria that emphasize the health of the Gulf ecosystem as a whole, larger scale projects individual states could not or would not fund on their own and the long-term resilience of the Gulf.

In August, that FPL outlined the first $139 million the council is likely to spend, which Ehrenwerth said would immediately preserve 9,400 acres of coast habitat, plug 11 abandoned oil and gas wells and backfill nearly 17 miles of abandoned oil and gas canals, all of which will restore crucial habitat throughout the Gulf.

Still, the majority of the first projects will focus on long-range planning, and though they might not seem like it, Ehrenwerth said those types of projects are a crucial step in getting other projects funded later.

One area directly benefiting from those “planning projects” is Mobile Bay, which was one of the 10 key watersheds identified by the council. If the FPL is finalized, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) will be able to fund 19 additional watershed management plans, which means all 31 watersheds identified in the area will be funded for some type of active restoration program. According to Ehrenwerth, Mobile Bay is the fifth most biodiverse watershed in the country and the most biodiverse east of the Mississippi River. Right now, the biggest “stressors” on the region are the loss of land through development, shoreline hardening, invasive species and poor water quality.

The planning projects proposed by MBNEP and other organizations like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are aimed at identifying the cause of those issues and finding a way to eliminate them or reduce their effect in the future. However, implementing many of those solutions will likely require more funding later, but Ehrenwerth said getting that funding is far more likely when this type of planning has already taken place.

Another project relevant locally is a Corps study aimed at identifying the beneficial use of dredging sediment. The use of such sediment has been an issue as recently as last summer, when the Alabama State Port Authority was preparing to deepen and widen a five-mile portion of Mobile’s shipping channel to create a passing lane.

That project was eventually postponed indefinitely pending a full environmental impact study from the Corps, but it led to much discussion about how the sediment from dredging projects can reverse or mitigate the erosion of barrier islands like Dauphin Island.

“From a restoration point it’s a no brainer,” Ehrenwerth said. “You don’t want to just dump it, you want to use it and use it for a beneficial purpose. This study will enable us to identify some of those sites we can build upon that are in the best location to benefit from sediment in the future.”