BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - A dispute over legislative oversight of one program has halted funding for the Department of Marine Resources
Members of the State House of Representatives want more oversight over GOMESA money, while the State Senate thinks the current plan is sufficient.
There is still some uncertainty over past projects that have been approved.
Mississippi has $51 million of GOMESA money that comes from oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico to spend this year.
That money is intended to enhance the Gulf’s ecosystem.
“Mississippi faces some real serious crises when it comes to coast,” said Raleigh Hoke of the nonprofit environmental group Healthy Gulf. “Water pollution that hurts the tourism industry, the devastation of the oyster industry last year, and coastal wetlands loss and habitat loss that really hurts our fisheries in the long run, so Mississippi should be as committed as other states to really spending this money exclusively to improve our water quality, improve the ecosystem, improve our fisheries.”
According to the DMR website, GOMESA money should be spent on:
- Projects and activities for the purposes of coastal protection, including conservation, coastal restoration, hurricane protection and infrastructure directly affected by coastal wetland losses
- Mitigation of damage to fish, wildlife or natural resources
- Implementation of a federally-approved marine, coastal or conservation management plan
- Mitigation of the impact of activities through funding of onshore infrastructure projects
- Planning assistance and the administrative costs of complying with this section (not more than 3%)
The payments to Mississippi have grown dramatically. The $51 million received in 2020 is as much as the state received in the two previous years combined. $10 million of that is split among the three coastal counties and the state decides how the other $41 million is spent.
Some of the previous GOMESA-funded projects have fallen under question.
In 2019, the state allocated almost $5 million for the beach outfall project that combined seven drainage outfalls into three covered with decorative mini piers.
$4.9 million has been pledged to two boardwalk projects in Biloxi, and another $8 million for the soon-to-open Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport.
State Sen. Scott DeLano of Biloxi said it’s not clear how those projects enhance water quality and fisheries.
“I would like to do research on the factors that went into on how those projects were chosen, and unless I’m missing something, it’s very easy for me and the public to question some of these things,” he said.
While GOMESA projects are vetted by DMR, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the state attorney general, the governor has the final say on what projects are approved.
“There have been some good projects funded under GOMESA, including the oyster restoration projects,” Hoke said. “But the state of Mississippi faces major environmental challenges on the Coast, and fixing those problems could really improve the tourism industry, improve our fisheries, improve the oyster resources of the Mississippi Sound.
“What we really need to see is a commitment from our politicians to spend the money to actually do this. We need to invest in our environment and that will help the economy.”
Despite being a member of the Senate that supports the current formula for dispensing GOMESA money, DeLano said he wants to make sure that money is going to worthy projects.
“I want to make sure that all of the dollars that we’re spending to enhance the water quality of South Mississippi is actually spent in those matters and with that primary function in mind,” Delano said in an interview last week. “We just want to make sure that there is a credible plan that is in place to make sure that the dollars that are spent are going to be done based on sound science and a strategic plan, a credible strategic plan.”
There were 89 applications for the state’s 2020 GOMESA funds.
Those projects have been studied by multiple state agencies and sent to a review committee. That committee will send a list of recommendations to the governor in September.