More than two years after tar balls washed ashore on Gulf Coast beaches, then-President Barack Obama signed the RESTORE Act into law on July 6, 2012.
The RESTORE Act — or if you prefer the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act — established the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund within the U.S. Treasury where 80% of the Clean Water Act penalties from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is slowly being distributed to impacted areas, including Okaloosa and Walton counties.
In the 10 years since the spill, projects such as implementing sea turtle-friendly lighting, improving water quality, dune restoration, boat ramps, and enhanced avian habitats are just some of the examples of projects that are finished or underway in the region from Escambia to Wakulla counties.
But the process takes time.
“RESTORE is an exercise of patience,” said Jane Evans, grants and RESTORE manager for Okaloosa County. “The Treasury is very vigilant and extra cautious (with applications). It can take six months from application to award.”
It also takes time for funding to build up, since payouts extend over the course of nearly 20 years.
BP’s settlement of $20.8 billion is the largest environmental damage settlement in U.S. history, but it didn’t come until 2016. And under the settlement, the oil company will pay up to $8.8 billion for work to address natural-resource restoration.
The RESTORE Act funds are divided into different pots. Okaloosa County will have $42,574,965.52 in direct money by year 2031 and the Gulf Consortium pot is estimated at $12,660,000 by 2034. Walton County is estimated to receive $38,341,516.39 by 2031. Additionally, there is approximately $22 million dedicated to projects in Walton County from other pots of funding.
Large projects in Okaloosa County include improvements to the waterfront areas at Fort Walton Beach Landing, stormwater projects, and restoration of Clement Taylor Park in Destin, which should be completed by 2021. Many of the smaller projects include educational programs. And just this week, a $1,233,566 grant was awarded to Okaloosa County for a snorkel and dive reef.
In Walton County, some projects include artificial-reef construction in Miramar Beach, new beach accesses, habitat improvements for the rare Coastal Dune Lakes, and “lots of stormwater projects,” said Melinda Gates, environmental coordinator at the Walton County public works department.
One of the more recently approved projects is the Coastal Dune Lakes hydrologic restoration project, which will replace existing culverts with a bridge to restore the natural flow of Alligator Lake.
“This will create a larger fish passage,” said Gates. “It allows the lake to function more naturally. There are so many unspoken values associated with this.”
Some projects, like road repairs, may seem small in scale, but could make a big difference for residents.
“Road projects could be saving people thousands in car repairs,” said Christopher Saul, public information officer for Okaloosa County. “And improvements at Fort Walton Beach Landing is something that everyone’s going to use.”
Additionally, Northwest Florida counties are benefiting from Triumph Gulf Coast, which oversees settlement funds the state received in a separate lawsuit against BP. This also requires a separate grant submittal-and-approval process. Projects approved so far include the southwest Crestview bypass and the Walton County Sheriff’s Office vocational training program.
Ten years since the explosion, and four years since the settlement, restoration projects have only just begun. And some of the environmental projects will have a lasting effect for decades.
Gates said there’s even a joint effort among counties to propose projects that cast a wider net of benefits beyond their local areas.
“These projects allow people to learn from what happened,” said Gates. “We would all like to see great things for Florida and make an impact regionally.”