Manatee County to request $68.6 million to fund ecosystem projects

skennedy@bradenton.comJanuary 4, 2013 

MANATEE -- County officials have approved $68.6 million in ecosystem restoration projects they hope will qualify for funds stemming from huge penalties imposed after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Although the settlement has not been finalized against BP, the oil company responsible for the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, counties and parishes in Gulf states are submitting "wish lists" for projects in anticipation of billions in penalties and fines.

Topping Manatee County's list are $4.45 million for restoration of a newly acquired 150-acre tract at Robinson Preserve in northwest Bradenton; $1,375,896 for long-leaf pine restoration at Duette Preserve in East Manatee; and $6,203,762 for water quality monitoring and improvement projects, according to county documents.

The most expensive project was a $50 million request that would provide money for acquisition of ecologically sensitive lands. State funds for such projects all but dried up during the recession.

The application calls for an account from which the county could draw over the next decade or two, according to Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of natural resources.

"We're being very conservative in the applications we're making," Hunsicker told the county commission Thursday.

Other cities and counties are submitting requests totaling as much as $100 million or more, he said.

"Shovel-ready" projects and those that have already been permitted and partially funded, but still lack a small amount in order to start, have the best chance of being approved, Hunsicker said.

Other projects likely to score money are those that are part of regional efforts coordinated across many counties.

One such project is the Manatee-Hillsborough Conservation Land Corridor Connection. The $1.58 million project calls for the purchase of 186 agricultural acres that would connect 8,500 acres of conservation lands in Hillsborough County to more than 3,000 acres in Manatee County, according to county documents.

Another project calls for enhancement of the Larry Borden Artificial Reef Habitat, about nine miles west of Anna Maria Island, which could be part of a regional initiative at a cost of $500,000, county documents said.

Each county's priority list will be evaluated and culled by a regional estuary committee, and then submitted to the federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which oversees monetary awards under terms of the federal RESTORE Act, Hunsicker said.

Manatee County could potentially reap between $4.8 million and $19 million stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, according to estimates last fall provided by the Florida Association of Counties.

The oil disaster began April 20, 2010, when an oil drilling platform caught fire and exploded in the Gulf, polluting beaches in five states, including sections of the Florida Panhandle and areas of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Manatee County's beaches remained pristine, but although it escaped the oil itself, Manatee suffered collateral economic impacts and has a stake in ensuring the Gulf's ecosystem can rebound in the future, Hunsicker said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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