Oil spill brings attention to delicate Gulf coast

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Associated Press

Posted on January 29, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Updated Sunday, Jan 29 at 11:32 PM

TIVOLI, Texas (AP) — For decades, farmers and fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico watched as their sensitive ecosystem's waters slowly got dirtier and islands eroded, all while the country largely ignored the destruction.

It took BP PLC's well blowing out in the Gulf — and the resulting environmental catastrophe when millions of gallons of oil spewed into the ocean and washed ashore — for the nation to turn its attention to the slow, methodical ruin of an ecosystem vital to the U.S. economy. Last month, more than a year and a half after the spill began, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a three-year, $50 million initiative designed to improve water quality along the coast.

"I'm not going to say that it's the silver lining," Will Blackwell, a district conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Services, said of the oil spill. Blackwell is one of many regional officials who have long worked with farmers and ranchers to fence cattle, reseed native grasses and take on other seemingly inane projects that go a long way toward preventing pollution and coastal erosion.

"I'm going to say that it will help get recognition down here that we have this vital ecosystem that needs to be taken care of," he said. "This will keep it at the forefront."

NRCS administrators struggled for years to divide a few million dollars among farmers and ranchers in the five Gulf states. Now, they are getting an eleven-fold increase in funding, money that will allow them to build on low-profile programs that already have had modest success in cleaning crucial waterways by working with farmers and ranchers to improve land use practices.

The nation's focus turned sharply to the Gulf when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in April 2010. Images of oil-coated birds and wetlands were splashed across newspapers and cable news networks. Coastal wetlands that are habitat to all sorts of wildlife were soiled and oyster beds were wiped out, underscoring the Gulf's ecological and economic importance.

The project is called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative, the first concrete step from a year's worth of meetings, studies and talking by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a committee formed by President Barack Obama in the spill's wake.

Sometimes, the money is spent on simple projects, such as building fences and installing troughs to keep cattle away from rivers and creeks that flow into the Gulf. The minerals in cow manure can pollute those upstream waters and then flow into the ocean. Those minerals can deplete oxygen in the Gulf, creating "dead zones" where wildlife can't thrive.

Other times, the program pays for expensive farming equipment that turns soil more effectively and creates straighter rows. That helps keep fertilizers on the farm — where it helps crops — and out of the Gulf, where the nutrients choke oxygen from the water. This equipment also decreases erosion, which has eaten up hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast habitat in the past century.

Until now, most counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas got right around $100,000 apiece to spend annually on these programs. The demand was far greater in many areas, but money was hard to come by, Blackwell said, highlighting the popularity of the program in Refugio County, Texas — the rural area of Southeast Texas he oversees.

The influx of money has many farmers and ranchers — especially those who have reaped the program's benefits in the past — eager for more opportunities to improve the environment they rely upon for their livelihood.

Now, they are hurriedly filling out applications and waiting for officials to rank the paperwork — those considered to have the greatest possible impact are the most likely to be approved.

"Fifty million dollars sounds like a lot. But when you consider — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and Texas, it's not going to be enough," said Glen Wiggins, a Florida farmer applying for help buying new farming equipment.

"But it'll help."

Dallas Ford, owner of the 171-acre Smoky Creek Ranch in Tivoli, Texas, first worked with the NRCS to build fences and strategically located troughs. The fences keep cattle in separate fields and allow him to rotate the cows between the fields, a practice that helps keep grass longer and better able to recover when it rains. The troughs ensure the cattle remain in the area and keep away from Stony Creek — a bountiful tributary of the Gulf's Hynes Bay.

Ford estimates he has between $15,000 and $20,000 worth of additional work to do on his ranch — all of which will ultimately improve water quality in Stony Creek — but he will be able to do it only if he can get another contract with NRCS, which would cover about half the costs.

The cash infusion reminded him of a mentor who once said you could cook anything with time and temperature. In this project, Ford said, time is plentiful — the temperature is money and manpower.

"We might be able to cook something a little faster," Ford said. "Now, maybe I can get you a nice steak."

About 685 miles away, Wiggins has been buying new tilling equipment to use on his 800-acre peanut and cotton farm that straddles the Alabama-Florida line. The high-tech farming equipment helps him better turn the soil and plant straighter rows, which ultimately prevent erosion and keep nutrients in the soil rather than allowing them to flow downstream and into the Gulf.

Wiggins' land sits on three watersheds — Canoe Creek and Pine Barren Creek that are part of Sandy Hollow Creek, and Little Pine Barren Creek. With the work he's already done, Wiggins estimates he has reduced erosion by at least 50 percent. Now, he wants to further reduce it, mostly through the use of new equipment that will decrease conventional, and more destructive, tillage of his land.

"I'd like to get it down to zero, but if I could get it to 10 percent conventional tillage, I would be tickled to death," Wiggins said.

He estimated the new equipment will cost about $70,000. The only way he can make that purchase is with NRCS' help — and now it may be within reach.

"The oil spill has been a powerful force to get people's attention," Wiggins said.

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Ramit Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com//RamitMastiAP

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