HOUSTON (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday pledged $50 million to a program designed to restore seven river basins from Florida to Texas in an attempt to show a blueprint for rebuilding the Gulf Coast's fragile ecosystem is more than just another federal report.
The USDA's announcement accompanied the presentation of the final report of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a team established by President Barack Obama after the April 2010 oil spill that highlighted decades of environmental decline in the Gulf of Mexico.
The task force's plan for reviving the Gulf and the ecosystems and watersheds linked to it calls for rebuilding and conserving wetlands; cleaning polluted rivers and streams; strengthening communities along the storm-prone area and better preparing them for the storms that brew over the warm ocean waters; and allowing more sediment to naturally flow downstream to slowly rebuild barrier islands meant to provide natural protection from storms.
"We are all dedicated to making sure that the treasures we grew up with are still around for future generations," said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a New Orleans native who chaired the task force.
Jackson and officials from other federal and state agencies made the announcements in Houston at a summit sponsored by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. The summit focuses on the Gulf, its importance to the U.S. economy and the need to reverse decades of damage and neglect.
Jackson said the USDA project - an offshoot of an existing national program aimed at conserving, improving and preserving the nation's watersheds - is only the first of many initiatives she expects will be announced in the coming months.
"I expect a flurry of activity to get some meat on those bones," she said.
The Gulf of Mexico, long neglected and under-funded, is a vital part of the nation's economy. More than 90 percent of the nation's offshore oil and natural gas production originates in the Gulf and 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage are in the region. If the five coastal states were a country, it would rank seventh in global gross domestic product. In 2009, the Gulf Coast produced 30 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
While this committee has been assigned the task of identifying problems and pinpointing possible solutions, Congress has been considering a bill called the Restore Act that would allow most of the penalties BP would pay for fouling the waters to go back toward restoring the environment in the five Gulf states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The House is to hold hearings on the proposed bill later this week.
The first project administered by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service gives farmers and ranchers the finances they need to change their land or water use practices to help clean, conserve and preserve the watersheds, said Harris Sherman, the USDA's undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment. The USDA provides them with a "tool kit" of options for joining the program, he added.
The program - called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative - also requires matching funds from state, local and nonprofit entities, and so the funds available could total some $90 million, Sherman said. Similar projects are already under way elsewhere, and have successfully reversed some damage done to waterways.
The $50 million commitment to the Gulf Coast, however, is unique because it significantly increases the department's funding to the region. Already, Sherman said, officials have met with ranchers and farmers in the area and are confident they will participate. The funding will be made available over the next three years, with the first $20 million available immediately.
The seven river basins identified for immediate assistance are already on the federal Clean Water Act's list of polluted waterways. In Alabama, the program's goal in the Weeks Bay watershed is to reduce agricultural-related nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment running downstream and to preserve wildlife habitats.
In a watershed shared by Alabama and Florida, the program aims to reduce the sediments and nutrients that flow into tributaries of the Escambia River. The USDA believes this will ultimately "improve wildlife habitat and the quality of water delivered to Pensacola Bay" and the Gulf. The project has similar goals for another Florida watershed.
In Louisiana, it will focus on the Baratoria-Terrebonne estuary and the Mermentau basin, once again by reducing the harm fertilizers have as they flow downstream from rivers and streams into the Gulf of Mexico. In Mississippi the Jourdan River basin is the focus, while in Texas the goal is to clean up the Guadalupe River basin.
Officials believe the project will improve water quality for thousands of residents in Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and San Antonio.
"We're focusing on priority areas where we can get the greatest gains," Sherman said.