Legislation to restore 1 million acres of habitat in the Bay and other estuaries over the next decade has cleared the U.S. Senate and could win House approval by early June.
The Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act calls for spending $315 million over the next five years to fund on the ground — and in the water — restoration projects by nonprofit organizations, schools, state and local governments, and others in coastal areas.
The Senate unanimously passed the measure in late March. Similar legislation was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in March and was awaiting consideration by the Resources Committee in early May before going to the floor for a vote.
“We could get it on the House floor by the beginning of June,” predicted Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, who introduced the House version of the bill.
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.
Ultimately, the nationwide goal is to restore 1 million acres of coastal marshes, underwater grass beds and other important estuarine habitats over 10 years. The legislation proposes spending $315 million during the first five years, with $40 million the first year, $50 million the second, and $75 million during the remaining three years. Congress rarely approves programs for more than five years, so further legislation would be needed to cover the second half of the program.
It’s unclear whether passage of the bill will come in time to begin the program next year, though. “We’re going to try to get it in 2001,” Gilchrest said. “We’re not giving up on that yet. Certainly, if we don’t get it in 2001, we’ll get it in 2002.”
Many coastal areas have lost huge amounts of habitat to pollution and development. In the Bay, about 90 percent of the historic underwater grass beds have vanished while oyster reefs occupy only a fraction of their historic area. Some places are even worse off: Louisiana loses about 25,000 acres of coastal marshes each year while San Francisco Bay has lost 95 percent of its original wetlands.
The bill would be a “significant boost to critical efforts to restore the oysters, underwater grasses, forests and wetlands that buffer the Chesapeake Bay,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. CBF is part of a coalition of 11 regional coastal environmental groups called Restore America’s Estuaries that has been promoting the legislation.
The legislation does not specify how much money would go to the Bay. All projects would compete nationwide for funding. A panel with representatives from four federal agencies would select projects each year. But supporters say the Chesapeake should fare well because it is the nation’s largest estuary.
The House version differs slightly from the Senate bill. Instead of projects being chosen only by a national panel, it would first have individual projects undergo a regional review. The idea, said Gilchrest, is that regional panels better understand local needs and issues and could promote the best projects. A single national panel, he said, could be overwhelmed.
Another difference that has to be resolved is that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee amended the bill to include the Great Lakes.
Because the Great Lakes have no estuaries — a region where fresh and salt water mix — an effort is expected to amend the bill to specifically include coastal marsh restoration for the Great Lakes. In addition, 100,000 acres may be added to the restoration goal, along with $50 million in additional funding.