Artificial reefs a priority in Walton County
It's been three years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill first gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, and even though it's no longer making headline news, Gulf Coast officials are still scrambling to restore and prevent damage to the land and sea.
On May 2, Gov. Rick Scott announced Walton County's inclusion in the list of Florida early restoration projects proposed by the Trustees of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).
While details have yet to be cemented, Walton County is slated to be a part of artificial reef restoration as well as scallop enhancement.
This is good news for divers and fisherman, as the artificial reefs provide habitat and shelter for fish and eventually builds up an ecosystem.
"We don't know if it'll be partially or fully funded yet," said Billy McKee, environmental manager with Walton County Public Works.
McKee said the county is looking at constructing artificial reefs offshore within a nine-mile radius where they will be of use to people. Beyond that is state waters. The need for the reefs is surprisingly dire, McKee explained.
"If you look along the coastline of the county, ours looks like a giant void in between Bay and Okaloosa counties," he said.
Since full extent of the oil spill's damage cannot be determined, the NRDA Early Restoration projects concentrate on restoring natural resources and preventing further damage.
"It's a long-term process," McKee said of the restoration. "Damage could manifest years from now. For example, a few years from now you might see the fish population declining."
This is third phase of the NRDA Early Restoration Projects. In predicting the need for these projects BP has allocated $100 million to the state of Florida, which was distributed in increments. During this phase, Florida will receive $58 million. The proposed cost of artificial reefs in Walton County is $2 million.
Funds are under the control of BP. Any early restoration projects have to be submitted to a state trustee, who then passes it along to the Trustees of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment.
Besides the artificial reefs, the county has submitted 12 projects for consideration including: a fishing pier, boardwalks and dune crossovers, a marine fish hatchery and research center and water quality monitoring and restoration of 15 coastal dune lakes and Choctawhatchee Bay. The proposal was submitted over two years ago and can be updated at any time.
"We'd like to them all happen," McKee said of the projects. "But it's important we get them out there. This is going to be going on for years."