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January 21, 1997

Mobile Bay NEP Picks Up Steam

by Edmund Tsang

After a lull while the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) changed its program director last Fall, the pace of the project picked up with advertisements last Sunday in Mobile's daily for Request For Proposals (RFP), as the program proceeds to put in place in three years an agreement between local, state and federal interests in managing and protecting the resources of the estuarine system in Mobile Bay.

Dr. Susan Reese, interim director for Mobile Bay NEP, said the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was responsible for narrowing the scientific and technical assessment focus to water quality, habitat loss, and living resources of Mobile Bay. Reese said a goal common to all the above RFP items is to help NEP characterize the estuarine system of Mobile Bay. For work on water quality, habitat loss and living resources, the RFPs identify these common, specific objectives:

In addition, there are RFPs for setting up a data and information management system to handled GIS-based data; for conducting baseline studies of federal, state, local government and private sector programs affecting Mobile Bay and at existing regulatory programs; and for characterizing human uses of Mobile Bay and its estuaries.

Since many scientific and technical professionals from Mobile's academic, business, and government communities serve on the various Mobile Bay NEP committees, and the organization they represent might be submitting proposals, Dr. Reese said steps have been put in place to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest. "We have representatives from industry and consultants serving on the selection panel," Reese said. "if a proposal is submitted by, say, an individual from the University of South Alabama, the USA person serving on the panel must recuse himself from evaluating the proposal."

As to whether persons serving on the various committees of Mobile NEP and the institutions they represent might have an advantage in responding to the RFPS, Reese responded that while committee members might know the total budget NEP plans to spend on technical and scientific assessment, they would not know the cost estimates for each RFP item. "The cost-estimate on the proposal will be blackened out by me," Reese said. "We might have to have someone from outside to evaluate the proposals."

The deadline for submitting proposals is February 17. Dr. Reese said grant applicants will be notified of the selection by March 15.

Public Perception & Participation

Before Dr. Reese became the interim director, she served on the Management Committee, which makes recommendations to the Policy Committee; final decisions concerning Mobile NEP are made by the Policy Committee.

NEP programs originated from the Clean Water Act, and one of goals stated in the act is to "restore and maintain the estuary, and identify the means to carry out these actions." The goals of Mobile NEP established by the Policy Committee are: (1) To maintain and promote wise stewardship of the water quality characteristics of the Mobile Bay estuarine system; and (2) To maintain and promote wise stewardship of the living resource base of the Mobile Bay Estuarine system.

Dr. Reese explained the difference between "restore and maintain" versus "maintain and promote wise stewardship" this way., "Unlike the Chesapeake Bay, all existing data indicate Mobile Bay is in pretty good shape.

"While we don't have the same amount of submerged sea-grass as before as some people remembered it, because there were at the time no regulations governing discharges to Mobile Bay," Dr. Reese said. "But Judy Stout [a marine scientist with the University of South Alabama] tells me sea grass is recovering."

As to whether the diverse population of shell-fish and mussels found in the Mobile delta are diminishing or being threatened, Reese said it is not true. "Take oysters for example. The oysters are still there, it's just that they can't be harvested because of poor water quality. People don't realize nature's resilience."

"A few people said the bay was different when they were children. But we can't go back 50 years," Reese said. "Today's uses of Mobile Bay are very different from 50 years ago.

"TheManagenierytCommitteefeelswise stewardship includes a certain amount of restoration, and we don't think there is the need to place emphasis on restoration as opposed to maintaining," Dr. Reese said.

Reese believes that misunderstanding and lack of trust between the public and the scientific and business communities are the main obstacles to building consensus to make the estuary program work. When asked whether the public's distrust might be justified in view of the lack of stewardship of Mobile Bay by businesses and by people with the knowledge, Reese cited the history of environmental regulation.

"When the first piece of environmental legislation was written in 1969, it dealt with the actions of the federal government only and did not deal with people. It was not an environmental protection act," Dr. Reese said. "Even now, the importance of wetlands is still new to many people. So environmental awareness takes time."

Reese said she is streamlining NEP's operation to focus more on issues and actions that affect mobile Bay. "Rather than coming to a two-hour meeting on bylaws," Reese said, "the bureaucracy will be dealt with in 5 minutes. Hopefully it will get more public participation and input."

Reese said the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meets in the evening while the Technical Advisory Committee, the Policy Committee and the Management Committee meet during working hours in the day time, because "members of these committees attend the meeting as part of their work."

Reese was asked when she was a Management Committee member whether she or other committee members have thought about changing the meeting times of the Policy and Management Committees to the evening to increase public participation. Even though the chairs of the Policy and Management Committees take great pains to point out each time that there are public comment period at the end of these meeting, there were usually little response.

"Just like everybody I'm selfish. I'd like to spend time with my family when I get off work." Reese said. "If that's a concern, I hope people will contact us and let us know."

"Then again, I don't see, the groundswell of interest on the public's part. If we see hundreds of people coming to the CAC meeting," Reese added.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL