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Florida Gulf Coast NEPs Approve Regional Plan Projects

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Some 230 environmental improvement projects, totaling nearly $3 billion and spanning Florida’s Gulf Coast from the Big Bend to the Everglades, will be submitted next week for potential funding through fines associated with the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.

The projects, collectively known as the Southwest Florida Regional Ecosystem Restoration Plan, are being advanced by a landmark partnership of the Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Programs, on behalf of cities and counties from Levy in the north to Collier in the south. The Southwest Florida Water Management District also is a key partner.

The Regional Plan will be submitted next week to the state of Florida and members of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, a newly created entity that will receive 30% of the money allocated under the federal RESTORE Act to the Gulf Coast states. The Council’s portion can only be used for environmental activities.

The RESTORE Act was passed by Congress last summer. It directs 80% of Clean Water Act fines associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to economic and ecosystem restoration in the five Gulf states.

The three NEPs agreed to put forward one list of priority environmental projects for consideration by the State and Council, hoping by their unified front to transcend turf-guarding and improve the funding odds. Cities, counties, non-profit organizations, universities and other institutions were invited to submit project information. The 230 proposals that were received were rigorously reviewed, vetted and ranked by technical advisers and then approved last week by a joint committee of elected officials representing each of the NEP Policy Boards as well as a SWFWMD governing board member.

“The Tampa Bay Estuary Program was pleased to be a partner in developing this important blueprint that, for the first time, presents and prioritizes the environmental restoration and research needs of more than half of Florida’s Gulf Coast” said Holly Greening, TBEP’s executive director.

All told, the 230 projects in the Regional Plan have a combined price tag of nearly $3 billion. Priority is given to about $1 billion worth of projects that could be implemented in the next three years. The joint selection committee recommends capping all requests at $10 million each, to encourage widespread distribution of funds throughout Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Activities for which funding is being sought range from large-scale coastal habitat restoration to land acquisition to water quality enhancement, as well as applied research, monitoring and education programs.

Among the priority projects in the greater Tampa Bay region:

  • Expanded restoration of key coastal habitats in Manatee County’s Robinson Preserve ($7.1 million)
  • Initial implementation of a wildlife conservation corridor connecting south Hillsborough with Manatee County ($1.58 million)
  • Mapping of habitat for vitally important benthic (bottom-dwelling) animals along the Southwest Florida coast by University of South Florida scientists ($1.98 million)
  • Installation of a nearly mile-long breakwater along the Audubon-managed Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary islands to halt erosion of the shoreline at this critically important wading and shorebird rookery ($1.8 million)
  • A major stormwater retrofit to treat polluted runoff from 169 acres of commercial and residential lands along 49th Street in Gulfport ($1.7 million)
  • Continuation of the “Be Floridian” regional education campaign supporting local urban fertilizer ordinances ($750,000)
  • Construction of a multi-lane boat ramp in Citrus County on the Cross Florida Barge Canal, to divert existing boat traffic from spring-fed rivers that serve as critical manatee habitats ($5.7 million)
  • Initiation of a trust fund to support long-term regional water quality monitoring programs in Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties ($10 million)

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council is tentatively scheduled to release its draft Gulf-wide restoration plan in early April, and is currently soliciting public input on how its share of the RESTORE Act funds should be spent. The Council is expected to have from $4 billion to $25 billion available, depending on the outcome of negotiations over the oil spill fines.