Since 2017 alone, MDEQ has issued 237 water contact advisories along the Coast because of bacteria or sewage issues.
“It’s distressing, it’s frustrating, and it’s embarrassing,” said Skrmetta, whose family has operated Ship Island Excursions for 94 years. “It’s starting to become a situation where economically, it’s adversely impacting my way of life, my living, when folks decide to bypass the Mississippi Gulf Coast and head east.”
Eric J. Shelton Credit: Eric J. Shelton
Restoration of the water
Now, after identifying sewage areas and treatment plants to upgrade or repair, MDEQ is beginning to implement specific projects with RESTORE Act funds. Yet as of last December, the state had spent less than $1 million of the $68 million obligated — money the agency budgets before receiving — towards the program.
“If we haven’t addressed wastewater treatment and storm water runoff, then we really haven’t spent that money on the things that we can have a positive impact on,” said Teresse Collins, vice president of the nonprofit Gulf Island Conservancy.
For some directly working on the response to the spill, it’s unclear why so little has been spent on that project while non-environmental projects, such as the new Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, which received $14 million in BP funds, are already completed.
“We have yet to see any project that really makes an impact in terms of improving the water quality or restoring the production of the species,” said Daniel Le of Boat People SOS, a nonprofit that supports local Vietnamese-American communities and worked closely with fishermen recovering from the spill. “There’s a lot of projects being proposed that are land-based that have nothing to do with the restoration of the water.”
Le said he and local fishermen were active in attending the state’s early meetings that looked to engage Coast stakeholders on the spending process, but they stopped going after not seeing the progress they hoped for. “I think a lot of the fishing community has basically given up,” he said.
Each project must be approved by the agency or body overseeing that fund. These agencies include the RESTORE Council, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and NOAA. Some funding streams allow for a portion to be spent on economic development or recreational projects.
“I think you can see from the projects they have how (state and local governments) feel about the issues,” Collins added. “They may address an economic impact, they may look pretty, they may address a recreational concern, but do they really offset the negative impacts of the oil spill and the ongoing impacts? And if so, how?”
Chris Wells, who Gov. Tate Reeves appointed in January to lead MDEQ, addressed those concerns in an interview with Mississippi Today, explaining that the public doesn’t see much of the water quality work that has taken place so far, such as source tracking bacteria hotspots. He added that the typical timetable from proposing a project to getting money on the ground has taken between 18 to 24 months.
“Unfortunately a lot of what we have accomplished is not visible to people,” Wells said. “The aquarium is very visible to people. You can go out and see the progress on the construction of the aquarium, and that’s something tangible. But so much of the work that we’ve done has been laying that scientific groundwork, doing the engineering and design type work, and doing the stuff that’s literally under the water.”
Wells believes this year’s Restoration Summit on Nov. 10 will demonstrate the work that’s gone into studying water quality and other ecological concerns.
“So for somebody that’s been coming to the summit for four or five years now, I think it’s legitimate for them to say, ‘Well you’ve been talking about it, but what have you done?’” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing at the summit, is showing people.”
Eric J. Shelton Credit: Eric J. Shelton
No centralized gameplan
Another common refrain among critics of the state’s restoration efforts centers on the apparent lack of a comprehensive plan to marshal funds from the oil spill with what is known as the Tidelands Fund — money from leases on the Coast’s submerged land — and GoMESA, a program that sends revenue to Gulf states from offshore oil and gas production.
Some conservationists point to Louisiana, which plugs various funding sources into its Coastal Master Plan to combat land loss.
“I think it’s something for Mississippi to continue to strive for,” said Johnny Marquez, director of Coastal Policy and Programs for the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. “Fifteen years of funding seems like a long time, but we’ll be worrying about these issues for many years after that. Having a plan that looks beyond just these restoration dollars is a worthwhile endeavor.”
State Sen. Scott DeLano, a Republican from Biloxi, voiced similar concerns in July during a political squabble over GoMESA funds.
“All these programs and projects are supposed to go to restoration, but there’s no central game plan for protecting or mitigating natural resources, just little pot shots,” DeLano said. “We’re still having all these constant beach closures (from pollution), after all this money spent. How are we not able to address the problem of effluent, or raw sewage, going into the Sound?”
Eric J. Shelton Credit: Eric J. Shelton
DeLano said Gov. Tate Reeves is working with members of the Coast delegation towards that goal. Reeves’ office did not respond to requests to answer questions for this story.
Ashley Edwards, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council and chairman of the advisory board on spending economic damages money from the oil spill, echoed DeLano, emphasizing the cluster of disasters the Coast has had to rebound from.
“There has arguably been no region of America that has encountered more economic disruption over the past 15 years than coastal Mississippi,” Edwards said.
In that time, the Coast has faced several major hurricanes – including Katrina, Gustav, Ike and recently Zeta – increasingly frequent spillway openings, with the oil spill sandwiched in between. He said that although the Coast had historically been an economic driver for the state, it hasn’t recovered as well as the rest of Mississippi since the Great Recession in 2008.
A more cohesive plan for the various recovery streams, including the BP settlement, could be an important first step to helping the region bounce back, he said.
“It is pretty apparent quickly that we have more money to leverage here in economic growth than many of the regions we compete against in the United States,” Edwards added. “So it certainly stands to reason that we would have a coordinated, sophisticated strategy to get the more bang for our buck of all of those funding forces and position Coastal Mississippi to be more economically competitive.”
It takes time
Despite looming questions about the progress of water quality initiatives, many in the state’s conservation community applaud how Mississippi has used BP funds to tackle areas such as habitat restoration and land conservation.
One frequently cited example is Round Island in the Mississippi Sound, which eroded from 200 acres in the late 1800s to just 20 acres. The state used dredged materials to rebuild 220 acres of the Island, which serves as a natural storm protector and is now starting to see a return in coastal bird populations. For instance, one species, the Sandwich Tern, went from an island population of zero before the project in 2015 to over 1,000 in 2017.
Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Round Island Credit: Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality
“That to me is what restoration success is supposed to look like,” said Jill Mastrototaro of Audubon Mississippi, which partners with the state on a coastal bird stewardship program. She acknowledged that demonstrating success for a lot of the BP projects can be challenging because it requires years of monitoring to show results. “As we all know, science is for patient people, and I’m not necessarily one of them, but it takes time to get trends.”
The state has also spent BP funds on a number of land acquisition and easement projects, such as at Grand Bay in Jackson County, Turkey Creek, which feeds into the Back Bay in Biloxi, and several locations along the Upper Pascagoula River. Those projects, which so far have cost a combined $4 million, conserve the local habitats and also give the state more control around the downstream impacts to water quality.
Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Hancock County Living Shoreline Credit: Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality
One project underway that environmental groups are eagerly following is the Hancock County Living Shoreline. Especially during a record-breaking hurricane season, MDEQ is hoping that the $56 million-project will both combat erosion and restore habitat; the state, having spent about $30 million so far, has built breakwaters off the Coast that allow sediment to accumulate, and it just received funding to grow more than 40 acres of marsh, which will both provide a nursery for small species and help reduce storm surges.
To view the Complete list of Mississippi’s BP restoration projects: https://www.datawrapper.de/_/HIuRj/
On Tuesday, MDEQ’s Wells and his team will give their annual update on the state’s progress so far during a virtual Restoration Summit. He said that moving forward, the public will see “more and more” water quality projects, as well as continued investments in oyster rehabilitation and marsh construction.
While most in the conservation community agree Mississippi is better off now than before the spill, changes at the federal level leave some concerned about preventing similar disasters in the future. President Donald Trump’s administration has rolled back or is in the process of removing 20 drilling and extraction regulations, according to a New York Times analysis, including loosening safety protocols around blowout preventers, a policy written in direct response to the 2010 spill under the Obama administration.
Eric J. Shelton Credit: Eric J. Shelton
“That’s something that I think is a travesty in a lot of respects because of what the Gulf and the people and the resources endured in the aftermath,” Mastrototaro of Audubon said.
The Trump administration had also unsuccessfully attempted to reinterpret the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law that helped direct funds from the oil spill towards conservation efforts.
Much of what Mississippi hopes to accomplish with BP funds lies ahead. The state will continue to receive chunks of the $1.3 billion for the next eleven years; so far, it’s only spent 10% of that total, with 44% of it obligated.
Notably, the state is working to better understand how to adapt to changes such as increasing rainfall and warmer water temperatures. At the University of Southern Mississippi for instance, researches are working on developing oyster genetics that are more resilient in the Gulf. The state is also developing a hydrological model of the Mississippi Sound, which will help better show impacts from outside influences like freshwater from the Bonnet Carré Spillway.
Moreover, the conservation community knows that it will take time to see the impacts of the initial projects.
“Natural systems don’t move immediately, they work at the rate that they do,” said Thomas Mohrman, Marine Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi. “You’re not going to get instant gratification. Ask me again in 10 years, I’ll definitely be able to tell you if we made all the right choices.”
This story was completed with support from the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.