Learning continues to be the name of the game for Escambia County’s RESTORE Act Advisory Committee. The committee, tasked with (eventually) recommending projects for funding to the county commission, is currently waiting on both the outcome of a federal trial in New Orleans to determine the fine amount BP will pay under the Clean Water Act and final regulations from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to guide the disbursement process.
Locally, the panel of 9 members is maintaining its bi-monthly meeting schedule to hear from experts in the fields of environment, economic development, and public health. Speakers have been presenting on topics within their area of expertise and have also been suggesting evaluation criteria to the committee, which is anticipating evaluating a variety of projects that will likely be submitted for consideration once the overall BP penalty amount is determined.
Paul Thorpe, Director of Resource Planning with the Northwest Florida Water Management District presented to the committee on Monday. Thorpe delineated the components of the regional watershed to the committee and, like other environmental experts who have presented, emphasized the importance of addressing problems related to stormwater diversion and seagrass bed restoration.
“It’s well understood that the region’s water quality, the major systems—the surface water, the groundwater—are of extraordinary value,” Thorpe explained, “The diverse and rich ecosystems are very important for the local quality of life for the citizens and visitors. They support commercial and recreational fisheries and a wealth of other recreational activities.”
Though the district’s Pensacola Bay Surface Water Improvement Management (SWIM) Plan was last updated in 1997, Thorpe stated that the overarching issues of water and habitat quality remain the same today. And, though slight improvements to water quality have been achieved in recent years, seagrass beds lost between the late 1940s and the 1970s remain degraded.
“They provide a key component of the habitat,” Thorpe said, but noted that without improved water quality, attempts to restore them will likely be unsuccessful.
Essentially, Thorpe’s presentation reinforced the notion that projects related to water quality need to be considered within the broader context of the watershed, its interconnected components, and the various issues at play in the local bays and bayous.
“Addressing water quality can be achieved in part by restoring wetland systems in some areas,” said Thorpe, “So if we restored some of the wetlands which store the water, help stall floodwaters, regulate discharge…you are directly restoring habitat and addressing water quality issues at the same time.”
Procedurally, the committee was presented an opportunity to provide comments to the Department of the Treasury regarding the federal agency’s Draft Regulations released in early September. The draft regulations detail the administration of the Gulf Cost Restoration Trust Fund–in effect the RESTORE Act’s bank account within the Treasury–and the role of counties and states in the process. A 60-day public comment period will close on November 5, though the Florida Consortium plans to appeal to the Treasury for an extension in light of the federal shutdown.
The county has already submitted comments to the Consortium, but is also permitted to submit comments directly to the Treasury. It is into that set of comments that the Advisory Committee’s suggestions will be incorporated.
At its next meeting, the committee will hear from speakers from the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, Workforce Escarosa, and The Haas Center in the area of Workforce and Economic Development. The next Escambia County RESTORE Act Advisory Committee meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m., Oct. 21 at the Ernie Lee Magaha Government Building at 221 S. Palafox.