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Gulf of Mexico gets $50 million to improve water quality

Posted on behalf of Melissa Gaskill

On Monday 5 December, the 350 or so attendees at the State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit in Houston were among the first to hear of a $50 million, three-year commitment from the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for projects to improve water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.

The money will be used to help farmers and ranchers in seven priority river basins reduce run-off, improve water quality, and provide wildlife habitats. Called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative (GMI), it is part of the implementation phase of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force‘s final strategy, also announced on Monday. President Barack Obama created the Task Force by executive order in October 2010 as part of long-term recovery following the Deepwater Horizon disaster (see Nature’s collection of stories on the spill).

Roughly $20 million will be allocated in the first year, said GMI spokesperson Jody Fagan. “We’ll see what the interest is and then decide how to allocate funding. There’s not a certain amount of funding to certain rivers.” Farmers and ranchers can apply for funds to support specific projects, such as prescribed grazing or pesticide management.

The seven priority areas are Weeks Bay on Alabama’s Fish River, Escambia River watershed in Alabama and Florida, Middle Suwanee River in Florida, Barataria-Terrbonne National Estuary and Mermentau Basin in Louisiana, Jourdan River in Mississippi, and the Lower San Antonio River in Texas.

“This is the first demonstration of a significant monetary commitment [for the Gulf] from the federal government,” said Cindy Brown, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. “They are addressing a real problem and doing it now.” Nutrient inflow and water quality in Gulf estuaries are critical issues, with most of the Gulf’s 30 river basins imperilled, Brown added, affecting fisheries, drinking water, and recreation.

Billions of dollars in fines levied on companies involved with Deepwater Horizon would yet be directed towards Gulf projects, but that depends on pending legislation yet to be approved by Congress.

“As important economically as the Gulf of Mexico is, it doesn’t always get its fair share,” said William Hogarth, interim director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. In fact, the $50 million award, according to the Task Force, represents a 1,100 percent increase in federal financial assistance for Gulf priority watersheds. “To see money come in is gratifying,” Hogarth said. “I hope that it will do some good.”

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