David J. Phillip, AP
HOUSTON — Days before a newly formed council focuses on long-term Gulf of Mexico cleanup, a report released to The Associated Press shows that one federal agency has committed more than a half-billion dollars to the region in the past two years, nearly one-fifth of it on projects directly linked to recovery from the 2010 oil spill.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of the so-called "trustees" involved in divvying up projects and cash from a settlement with BP PLC, detailed in a progress report it will present next week at the meeting in Mobile, Ala., its Gulf Coast projects, the money it has invested and the acres impacted. The report was released to the AP in advance.
Some projects were started shortly before the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon platform blew up in April 2010, killing 11 people and spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Others began during efforts to cleanup and protect wildlife immediately after the environmental catastrophe. And in at least one case, an oil spill recovery project has been so successful, it is being expanded nationally, said NRCS chief Jason Weller.
The Gulf Coast, long in environmental decline, came into the national spotlight after the spill, when images of oil-covered birds and massive slicks dominated national news for weeks. Agencies like the NRCS that have long battled the region's ecological problems — often with little backing or attention — hope that now there will be a cash infusion for long-term projects that could help turn the tide.
Judy Steckler, executive director of the nonprofit Biloxi, Miss.-based Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plains, has been working with the NRCS and other state and federal agencies to improve water quality in crucial rivers and streams that flow into the Gulf. She says the report detailing programs can help them figure out what is working, what needs to be improved and how to most wisely invest oil spill settlement funds.
Steckler said the money that has flowed into the region since the spill has already made a dent, as has the reach of the federal agencies who can help work with northern states.
"The health of the Gulf of Mexico is affected by what people do in Iowa and other places," Steckler said.
One of the programs the NCRS started in response to the spill has gone on to have national impact, Weller said. It's a migratory bird program now being expanded to the Northern Plains and the West Coast.
That program was launched when oil was still pouring out of the wellbore and efforts to seal it were failing. Faced with the prospect of millions of birds not having the food and habitat they needed during long migrations, the NRCS spent nearly $40 million on three-year contracts with rice farmers in Gulf states and others along the flyway, paying them to flood their fields. Private landowners lined up and more than 470,000 acres of shallow wetlands were created — three times more than anticipated.
The acreage made up 3 percent of the total wetlands but provided more than 30 percent of the total food supply for migratory ducks, Weller said, so it was "incredibly valuable to allow the ducks to ... survive and have a healthy brood."
The Gulf of Mexico Initiative, launched a year ago, is a three-year, $50 million program designed to clean seven watersheds that feed into the coastal waters. About $8 million is already under contract, and the agency is feverishly working to nail down deals with other farmers to build fences, terraces or buy equipment to change farming practices — all methods designed to decrease nutrient runoff that deprives the water of life-giving oxygen.
Shortly before the oil spill, NRCS put together a $100 million program through which it bought conservation easements in the Everglades. In many cases, the contracts allowed landowners to continue to graze livestock on the easement, a win-win for all, Weller said. The program was so popular, the agency put another $100 million in it in 2011, and plans to invest a similar amount this year.
Such partnerships that allow landowners to voluntarily do conservation while sharing the costs with government put the NRCS in a good spot to get projects going in the Gulf, where 86 percent of the land is privately owned, said Weller, whose first day as the agency's new chief was Tuesday.
Now, as the new council, made up of local, state and federal agencies, comes together next week to identify more projects and how to spend millions of dollars of a BP settlement, the agency will be one of many that will likely get an inflow of cash just as traditional revenue streams are on the Congressional cash-cutting chopping block.
"What we have is a delivery capacity," Weller said. "If they want to invest in a private land approach, we can get projects going immediately."
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP
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