Fund allocation and expenditure resulting from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill appears clear in graphs and figures. It is actually a multipart process interwoven across federal agencies, states, counties, and parishes. As programs are implemented, these relationships increase in complexity.  The Gulf of Mexico Alliance reached out to Bay County, Florida RESTORE Act Coordinator Jim Muller for an in-depth overview of Florida’s approach and current status.

The RESTORE Act Direct Component and Oil Spill Impact Component provisions for Florida differ from those of the other four Gulf coastal states.  In those states, much or all of project selection is made at the state level.  In Florida, the Direct Component funds (also known as Pot 1) are reserved for the use of individual Florida Gulf coastal counties. The eight counties from Escambia (Pensacola area) to Wakulla (south of Tallahassee) counties, known as the Disproportionately Affected Counties, share 75% of Florida’s Direct Component allocation. The remaining 25% is divided among the other 15 Florida Gulf coastal counties, extending all the way to the Florida Keys. Multi-county agreements established the proportions allocated to each county.

The amount of Pot 1 funds each county will receive from the BP settlement over 15 years ranges from $58.5 million total ($3.9 million per year) for Escambia County to $2.7 million total ($180,000 per year) for Dixie County. Seven counties will receive less than $200,000 each per year; fourteen counties will receive less than $600,000 per year. There is widespread concern that the cost to maintain the local grant administration program over a 15-year period will be excessive compared to the funds available for projects.

More importantly, the amount received per year will make it difficult to do projects with large impact. It is likely that earlier implementation of environmental and economic restoration projects would accelerate and compound benefits over time. The potential to bond the BP settlement funds, backed by the faith and credit of the BP settlement agreement, is being explored.

Like the other four Gulf States, each Florida county is responsible for preparing a Multiyear Implementation Plan that identifies projects that are eligible as defined in the RESTORE Act. Most counties established a citizens advisory committee to review and recommend projects.  Progress varies widely.  Some counties have not started drafting their plan. Other counties have plans accepted by the U.S. Treasury and are now in implementation.

The RESTORE Act specifies that Florida’s State Expenditure Plan for Oil Spill Impact funds (also known as Pot 3) be prepared by the Gulf Consortium.  The Consortium consists of one representative from each of Florida’s 23 Gulf coastal counties and six non-voting members the Consortium asked the Governor to appoint for additional perspectives.  The plan is being prepared by Environmental Science Associates, consultants to the Consortium, and will contain projects nominated by each county.  The counties agreed that the same amount of Pot 3 funds, about $12 million, will be spent on projects identified by each county.  The plan is expected to be completed by June 2018. Like the other state expenditure plans, the Governor will advance the Florida Pot 3 plan for approval to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

The counties’ RESTORE Act coordinators have established a strong, informal network to share ideas and documents related to Pot 1 activities. The coordinators often convene immediately before each Consortium meeting to discuss progress, roadblocks, and tips on how to advance through project selection, grant application, and project implementation. The counties also share plans and grant management process documents using online file sharing programs. The Nature Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation facilitate some of the network’s activities.

Throughout the process, the Governor’s Office and state agencies, especially the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, have been important partners with the counties. These agencies provide technical advice and serve as state liaisons to the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damages Assessment (NRDA) process and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund.

The Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund is funding the update of Panhandle and Big Bend Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Plans. These watershed-based plans characterize the natural resources of each area, identify problems such as poor water quality and seagrass deterioration, and compile lists of projects to help restore the watershed. Cooperation between different funding sources is not mandated, but all participants recognize the potential opportunity to leverage both funds and benefits if they join forces for a more comprehensive restoration plan. The SWIM Plan updates mesh well with the initiative to establish estuary programs in North Florida.

The first steps to create estuary programs in the Panhandle and Big Bend regions, similar to the successful estuary program network in southwest Florida, have been taken. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council has agreed to fund one Gulf of Mexico Estuary Program for a western Panhandle estuary. The eight Disproportionately Affected Counties have requested that Florida NRDA funds be used to support two additional estuary programs in the western Panhandle. The SWIM Plan updates would be foundational documents for the estuary program’s required comprehensive plans.

One of the silver linings of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is that Florida counties, especially in the Panhandle, now take a more regional view for environmental and economic restoration and enhancement. Counties realize it is to their benefit to partner with their neighbors regarding mutual natural resources and economic development. The Gulf Restoration funds, applied judiciously, will result in a more sound Gulf environment and a stronger, more diversified economy.

Contributed by Jim Muller, Bay County, Florida, RESTORE Act Coordinator.

More specific information on Florida Gulf coastal counties Direct Component status and activities

November 2016 RESTORE Act Direct Component County MYIP Project Status Report
November 2016 RESTORE Act Direct Component county MYIP Project Spreadsheet
Bay County, Florida RESTORE Act Home Page
Florida Gulf Consortium Home Page
Access to Florida Department of Environmental Protection Gulf Restoration Portal – see the top right sidebar
Flowchart of Deepwater Horizon-related environmental settlements in Florida