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Agriculture Department shows progress in Gulf region

HOUSTON — Days before a newly formed council focuses on a long-term Gulf of Mexico cleanup, a report shows that one federal agency has committed more than a half-billion dollars to the region in the past two years, nearly one-fifth of it on projects linked to recovery from the 2010 oil spill.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of the so-called ‘‘trustees’’ involved in divvying up projects and cash from a settlement with BP PLC, detailed in a report it will present next week at the meeting in Mobile, Ala., its Gulf Coast projects, the money it has invested, and the acres affected. The report was released to the Associated Press in advance.

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Some projects were started shortly before the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon platform blew up in April 2010, killing 11 people and spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Others began during efforts to clean up and protect wildlife immediately after the environmental catastrophe. And in at least one case, an oil spill recovery project has been so successful, it is being expanded nationally, said NRCS chief Jason Weller.

The Gulf Coast, long in environmental decline, came into the spotlight after the spill, when images of oil-covered birds and massive slicks dominated national news for weeks.

Judy Steckler, director of the nonprofit Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plains, has been working to improve water quality in crucial rivers and streams that flow into the Gulf.

Steckler said the money that has flowed into the region since the spill has made a dent.

‘‘The health of the Gulf of Mexico is affected by what people do in Iowa,’’ Steckler said.

The migratory bird program now being expanded to the Northern Plains and the West Coast, started in response to the spill, has had national impact, Weller said.

The NRCS spent nearly $40 million on contracts with rice farmers in Gulf states and others along the flyway, paying them to flood their fields. More than 470,000 acres of shallow wetlands were created.

The acreage provided more than 30 percent of the total food supply for migratory ducks, Weller said, so it was ‘‘incredibly valuable to allow the ducks to . . . survive and have a healthy brood.’’

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