Officials will soon be stemming the tide of brown sludge running to the ocean after heavy rainfalls thanks to a multi-million dollar grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Under the umbrella of the V.I. Resource, Conservation and Development Council, the Coral Bay Community Council, the Fish Bay Homeowners Association (FBHA) and a St. Croix community group were awarded a total of more than $2.7 million from NOAA as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The Virgin Islands Watershed Stabilization project was one of 50 projects chosen by NOAA out of more than 800 proposals submitted from across the United States and the territories. Under the grant, CBCC will receive around $1 million, FBHA will get about $500,000 and a project in St. Croix’s East End Marine Park will be awarded $1.2 million.
In Coral Bay the funds will be used to mitigate stormwater runoff in six sub-watersheds, explained CBCC’s president Sharon Coldren.
“The money will be spent on doing repairs on roadways and drainage structures in Coral Bay according to a detailed listing in six different sub-watersheds,” Coldren said.
Although Coldren declined to comment on exactly where in Coral Bay the work will take place, the grant allows the community to look at drainage problems holistically, she explained.
“One thing this grant allows us to do is look at drainage problems as drainage problems, not as public or private problems, because water flows across both public and private land,” said Coldren. “We’ll look at each sub-watershed and we’ll look for the cooperation of all parties along the way.”
The NOAA grant requires work to be done on a timely basis and will depend on the cooperation of government agencies and home owners, Coldren added.
“We’ll be working very quickly to get it all together and we will be publicizing the projects,” she said. “This will all take place over the next year and a half and will depend upon the cooperation of the homeowners and land owners and groups responsible for individual roads as well as various government agencies.”
“To make this happen, it will take cooperation,” said Coldren. “We’re committed to showing that we can make this happen on a timely basis and the government has said they will help us.”
CBCC hosted a public forum several months ago for homeowners in the Coral Bay area to share their drainage problems. That meeting netted about 35 proposals in the area but people who didn’t attend the gathering can still take part in the watershed management project, Coldren explained.
“It’s never too late to get involved,” she said. “We know we only saw the tip of the iceberg in our first call out and we expect more homeowners to come forward and join the ones who have already made commitments.”
The NOAA grant means addressing problems in the Coral Bay watershed won’t be dependent on securing funds, Coldren explained.
“This means that we should be able to start doing some very serious repairs,” she said. “We don’t have the money to do it, shouldn’t be the first excuse anymore. We have the money, now we need the cooperation.”
In Fish Bay, FBHA president Terry Pishko, who has been aggressively tackling storm water woes for more than five years, already has permits from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for several projects.
“We’ve been working on this on and off since about 2002 and we went through a process with DPNR and developed a watershed plan and a road stabilization plan,” said Pishko. “As a community, we’re ready — we’re shovel ready. We have a permit and we’ve identified projects.”
“A lot of the projects involve a combination of road paving and swale construction to direct water to the guts,” Pishko said. “Some culverts in the area are in poor shape and need to be replaced. We’re also trying to put some concrete on the road to keep it from eroding and to keep the sediment out of the bay.”
When Pishko took over as president of FBHA about seven years ago, many of the roads in the area were unpaved and suffered serious erosion, she explained.
“We got involved with DPNR and worked together to come up with a plan,” Pishko said. “We worked in phases, initially targeting hot-spots that we identified. We’ve pretty much handled those areas and now we’re at a point where we have other spots that need to be worked on.”
Except for one small grant obtained by the homeowners association years ago, the NOAA funds signify the first major funding the group has been awarded, Pishko added.
“When you think about how long it would take for our $500 yearly dues to add up to the amount we’ve gotten from NOAA, it’s amazing,” she said. “I’m thrilled. It’s terrific.”
Coming from the ARRA Act of 2009, the grants are also intended to create jobs, and officials expect the St. John projects to net about 26 new employment opportunities.
Local contractors will bid on paving, culvert and swale repair and installation jobs in both watershed areas and project managers will be hired as well. The focus is also on creating jobs that restore the environment.
“These Recovery Act projects will put Americans to work while restoring our coasts and combating climate change,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in a prepared statement. “They reflect our investment in sound science and commitment to help strengthen local economies.”
While stimulating the local economy, the local ecology is due to get a major boost as well.
“We should be able to make Coral Bay more beautiful with more sea grass beds for turtles and have a more beautiful land environment,” said Coldren. “We won’t have the brown sludge anymore.”
“This will have a huge impact on the amount of runoff going into Fish Bay,” said Pishko. “We should definitely see results from this project.”
For more information about the VI Watershed Stabilization project check out, http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/habitat/restoration/restorationatlas/recovery_map.html.