The St. Andrew Bay watershed is in competition with three other Northwest Florida watersheds for a chance to host a $2.2 million estuary program.

 

 

The St. Andrew Bay watershed is in competition with three other Northwest Florida watersheds for a chance to host a $2.2 million estuary program through the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (GCERC).

The GCERC was set up in 2012 through the RESTORE Act in an effort to restore the long-term health of the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010.

Now the GCERC has asked for proposals from four Panhandle watersheds; Pensacola area bay systems, the Choctawhatchee Bay system, the Apalachicola Bay system, and the St. Andrew Bay/St. Joseph Bay system.

It is widely believed that the Apalachicola Bay system bid will be denied due to the ongoing legal battle between the state of Florida and the state of Georgia over water use.

The St. Andrew Bay watershed consists of St. Andrew Bay proper, along with East Bay, North Bay, West Bay, and St. Joseph Bay.

The St. Andrew Bay watershed is the only watershed in consideration that lies solely in the Panhandle of Florida.

Of the six counties, or a portion of counties, that make up the watershed, the Gulf County portion of the watershed covers 20 percent of the approximately 749,663 acres, according to data from the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

St. Joseph Bay also covers 42,826 surface acres, nearly on par with the 59,568 surface acres covered by St. Andrew, North, West, and East Bays combined.

According to information from the GCERC, the $2.2 million project will be developed as a “place-based estuary program,” with overwatch from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal and state organizations.

The $2.2 million will be used to establish a host organization, hire key staff, develop committees, determine stressors on the estuary, and then develop a comprehensive plan for the future of the estuary.

While being modeled after existing National Estuary Programs (NEPs), the program will not be considered a NEP, but could be used by the GCERC as a pilot program for other estuaries throughout the Gulf if funding becomes available.

The program, which would feature a management group, would be controlled by a decision-making body comprised of local, state and federal officials, as well as representatives from local conservation organizations and other entities with an interest in the estuary.

RESTORE officials from both Bay and Gulf Counties have been making the rounds to garner support for the bid.

So far both Bay and Gulf county governments have lent their support along with other local nonprofits and community organizations.

The Florida State University, Panama City campus has offered to host the program.

The Bay County Commission has also agreed to pledge 10 percent of the county’s RESTORE Act direct allocation settlement funds which would total $3.25 million dollars over 14 years, if the local bays are chosen for the program.

Bids are due to the GCERC by Aug. 1, with no announced date for selecting the winning bid or when the winning program will begin.