Mississippi’s second annual Restoration Summit convened on Tuesday Nov. 14th so the state could announce a new group of ecological and economic restoration projects for 2018, funded by the BP oil spill settlement and penalties. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality is the lead agency managing the allocation of the funds and had the responsibility Tuesday night of explaining the projects to the public and asking people to comment and help identify restoration needs.
At the end of nearly two hours of presentations, a facilitated round-table style discussion was held so that people in the audience could comment about strengths and weaknesses of the restoration plans they heard, and help identify places on maps that still needed attention. People at my round table tried to help answer MDEQ’s questions about restoration using maps to identify water quality trouble spots.
Some of the main points of emphasis during the Summit's presentations were: addressing urban water quality problems, land conservation in the headwaters of coastal rivers, marsh creation through beneficial use of dredge spoil, increasing oyster production through management of existing reefs and using intensive aquaculture methods to increase the volume of settled oyster larvae that Mississippi can plant on its state reefs.
Urban water quality projects focused on solving the problem of high bacteria counts that cause MDEQ to issue beach advisories. These advisories happen throughout the year in Mississippi, and while they don’t close beaches, they warn people to stay out of the water due to unhealthy levels of enterococci bacteria sourced from human waste (sewage) or animal waste. One presenter from MDEQ said, “The problem is unacceptable and we aim to fix it.” Solving the bacteria problem will be accomplished by tracking back up the watershed from the approximately 200 storm water outfalls along the coast to find sources of sewage pipe leaks, failing lift stations and other infrastructure problems. The approach involves reviewing existing water quality data, building more data through sediment tracking and source tracking, coordinating the effort with municipalities, and investing in infrastructure repairs in problem areas. Urban water quality projects accounted for $15 million allocated to projects for 2018.
The Coastal Headwaters Land Conservation Program will start out with $8 million in its first year. The presentation focused on two river systems, the Wolf and Biloxi Rivers that feed the Bay of St. Louis and Biloxi Bay, respectively. Land purchases are planned in four coastal stream watersheds: Pearl, Wolf, Biloxi and Pascagoula. In the Wolf and Biloxi drainages this would be accomplished through buying significant managed timber acreage from Weyerhaeuser along both of these rivers and starting forestry management practices to convert much of the acreage from mixed hardwood and loblolly plantations to managed longleaf pine. Discontinuing Weyerhaeuser’s use of applied inorganic fertilizer seems to be one benefit of converting loblolly plantations to longleaf. Another benefit predicted through modeling was an 8% increase in freshwater discharge to headwater streams from longleaf pine forests compared to the present pine plantation/mixed hardwood situation.
Whether state ownership by the Mississippi Secretary of State or some other qualified state agency will be good for managing headwater forest land for water quality improvement is one question to consider. Delbert Hosemann began his tenure as Secretary of State by acting on a campaign promise to cut timber aggressively on Mississippi's 16th section school board lands to provide money to school districts as provided in his agency's statutory mission. The Secretary of State public lands division is the likely manager for any purchased lands along these headwater streams. Balancing the need to harvest timber with the plans to plant and manage longleaf pine for an overall water quality improvement purpose is uncharted territory for Secretary Hosemann. Timber harvest disturbs soil and causes runoff to streams even under the best timber industry erosion management practices. Longleaf pine has a longer growing cycle than the other “plantation” pine species, and may frustrate a Secretary of State who seems likely to manage these lands as working forests, and not just for preservation. I hope he understands that these lands are meant to serve water quality first and other purposes are subservient to it.
Beneficial use of dredge spoil has been the main method that the State of Mississippi has used to create new marsh at several sites on the coast. Deer Island, Round Island, and Greenwood Island were all cited as success stories for the Beneficial Use program at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. As long as sediments are sufficiently free of pollutants, there will be a continuous supply of dredge spoil produced by maintenance dredging on the coast to keep federal channels like the Gulfport and Pascagoula ship channels deep enough for ships. Local small-scale dredging in back bays and harbors will also continue. Shoreline replenishment and marsh creation with this dredge spoil seems to be a worthy pursuit with a good record on the coast. The Beneficial Use program has $23.6 million allocated in 2018.
The oyster programs that the BP restoration funds will support in the coming year seem to lean toward making Mississippi self-sufficient in producing larvae and settled spat (juvenile oysters attached to shell or rock) to grow the state’s open-water reefs through more oysters planted and growing. Apparently, natural productivity of oyster larvae is not enough to jump start the oyster industry’s production goal of one million sacks by 2025 – as stated in the Governor’s Oyster Council 2015 final report. The state will use $9.3 million to build a large aquaculture facility with enough settlement tanks to increase the production of settled oyster spat by a factor of 10. In the new settlement tanks, free swimming oyster larvae will be introduced to bagged shell or other hard material so the larvae can settle as “spat” and form an oyster. The juvenile oysters can then grow and feed for a time in the tanks, attached to the hard material, and be strong enough to be moved out, loaded on boats, and planted along reefs in Mississippi waters.
Along with these four water quality or ecological-themed projects funded across the several sources of BP money from the Restore Act, NFWF and NRDA, there will be some purely economic and business related projects on the Governor’s Pot 1 Direct Component funding list for 2018. Workforce training at community colleges, construction at ports and one airport on the coast, helping business incubators increase their output, and providing road signage to direct tourists to coastal destinations are a few of the projects on the Governor’s list.
The mix of projects was not too different from last year’s group, and the emphasis for the state through Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality has remained focused on the core areas of urban water quality improvement, and land conservation, with new attention focused on purchasing land in the headwater areas of coastal streams.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's water program director and works on wetland and water quality issues in Mississippi.