Gulf of Mexico: USDA Funds $50 Million Worth of Restoration

HOUSTON, Texas, December 6, 2011 (ENS) – President Obama’s Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force has released its final strategy for the long-term ecosystem restoration of the Gulf Coast. The restoration strategy is the first ever developed for the Gulf of Mexico to include input from states, tribes, federal agencies, local governments and thousands of involved citizens and organizations from across the region.

On Friday, the Task Force delivered the final strategy to President Barack Obama, who established the task force by executive order, thereby shifting the direction of Gulf Coast activities from planning to action.

Key priorities of the strategy are stopping the loss of critical wetlands, sand barriers and beaches; reducing the flow of excess nutrients into the gulf; and enhancing resilience among coastal communities.

Among the new initiatives is $50 million in financial and easement assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service over three years.

Map highlights areas covered by the final restoration strategy, with priority areas marked in red. (Map courtesy USDA)

The funding, a 1,100 percent increase, will be spent to help agricultural producers in seven Gulf Coast river basins improve water quality, conserve water and enhance wildlife habitat in 16 of the Gulf Region’s most vulnerable watersheds.

EPA Administrator and Task Force Chair Lisa Jackson, with Task Force Co-Chair Garret Graves, announced the new strategy Monday during keynote remarks at the 2011 State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit in Houston.

“After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, this Task Force brought together people from across the Gulf Coast in unparalleled ways to talk about how we tackle both the immediate environmental devastation, as well as the long-term deterioration that has for decades threatened the health, the environment and the economy of the people who call this place home,” said Jackson.

“It has all come to this moment,” she said, “when we move from planning and researching to supporting real, homegrown actions aimed at restoring this vital ecosystem.”

Jackson was joined in Houston by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA; Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman.

Sherman said, “Restoring the Gulf Coast ecosystem needs to begin immediately.”

“This collaborative voluntary effort will leverage contributions and commitments from farmers, communities, and all levels of government to improve water quality,” he said. “A healthy water supply is not only vital for the people of the Gulf, but also for the estuaries, fisheries, and wildlife that are the foundation of the local economy.”

The task force will open a local office, headed by Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force Executive Director John Hankinson, in mid-December.

The new strategy should be implemented right away said Senator Bob Graham and William Reilly, co-chairs of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Overgrazing of pastures increases erosion and nutrient runoff. (Photo courtesy USDA)

“The country needs to make the commitments called for” in the strategy, said Graham and Reilly. “And it needs to make them now.”

The final strategy was developed following more than 40 public meetings the task force held throughout the gulf region to listen to the concerns of the public.

Mayor Randy Roach of Lake Charles, Louisiana said, “The Task Force went to great lengths to involve local leaders in the fact-finding process leading up to the release of the report. When you read the report it is obvious that they listened to what they heard and addressed our concerns in a very straightforward manner.”

Mayor Roach called the strategy, “a true intergovernmental approach to address the needs and interests of the people of the Gulf Coast region.” said Roach.

Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., said, “In partnership with all Gulf Coast states and several federal agencies and with full input from key parties throughout the region, the task force has detailed a specific list of coastal restoration priorities that protects the businesses and individual livelihoods along the coast and across the country, in the fishing, shipping, energy production and tourism industries, that are reliant upon a vital Gulf coast.”

By approaching water resource management decisions in a far more comprehensive manner the strategy aims to bypass harm to wetlands, barrier islands and beaches.

To reverse the trend of wetlands loss, implementation of several projects already authorized by Congress is recommended.

The strategy calls for supporting state nutrient reduction frameworks, new nutrient reduction approaches, and targeted watershed work to reduce agricultural and urban sources of excess nutrients.

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force is made up of representatives from the five gulf states, including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas as well as from 11 federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, White House Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, Department of Transportation, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy and White House Domestic Policy Council.

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