With this session of Congress entering its final days before members call it quits until the election, the fate of two bills important to the Chesapeake remains uncertain.
Both the House and Senate have approved bills reauthorizing the Bay Program and establishing a new program aimed at restoring 1 million acres of estuarine habitat nationwide.
But so far, the two chambers have not resolved the minor differences between the House and Senate versions of each bill, which would clear the way for final approval.
The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act authorizes the continued operation of the federal Bay Program through 2005 and calls for giving it up to $30 million a year — nearly $12 million more than it now receives.
Although Congress has continued to fund the Bay Program, its legal authorization actually expired in 1992. The new bill updates the original federal legislation creating the Bay Program by seeking to ensure greater participation by federal agencies working in the watershed and by clearing up technical details that prevented local groups from using watershed grants for certain restoration activities.
The bill also permanently establishes a Small Watershed Grants Program for the region. That program already exists, but only because Congress has specifically allocated $750,000 for it in each of the past three years. The new bill would make future funding nearly automatic. The grants program helps local governments and organizations launch efforts that meet their goals and help the Bay.
The bill was approved unanimously in the Senate and by a 412-7 vote in the House.
The Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act calls for spending $315 million over the next five years to fund restoration projects by nonprofit organizations, schools, state and local governments, and others in coastal areas. The goal is to restore 1 million acres of habitat in estuaries nationwide over the next decade.
Under the bill, the federal government would pay up to 65 percent for restoration projects, with local organizations or governments providing the other 35 percent. The local match could be in the form of money, labor or donation of land.
Many coastal areas, including the Bay, have lost huge amounts of habitat to pollution and development; the Chesapeake alone has lost about 90 percent of its underwater grass beds in recent decades.
Although the bill has been approved in both the Senate and House, minor differences must be worked out.