Legislation aimed at restoring one million acres of estuarine habitats, such as wetlands, underwater grass beds, oyster bars and other critical areas over the next decade has been introduced in Congress.

The “Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act” would make $315 million available over the next five years to fund restoration projects by nonprofit organizations, schools, state and local governments, and others across the nation.

The money would help the Chesapeake Bay and other coastal areas to reverse the often-dramatic declines in habitat.

In the Bay, for example, about 90 percent of the historic underwater grass beds are gone, oyster harvests have fallen from 25 million pounds to 1 million pounds in the last three decades, and the Bay watershed has lost more than half of its original wetlands. All those resources are now the subject of major restoration efforts by various agencies and groups in the region.

In other places, the picture is even more bleak: Louisiana loses 25,000 acres of coastal marshes each year, while San Francisco Bay has lost 95 percent of its original wetlands.

“So much has already been lost, that it’s time we start the process of restoring our estuaries to what they once were,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, who introduced the House version of the bill. “Fish catches are at their lowest, shellfish beds have been closed, and the livelihoods of watermen and others are threatened. We have to do everything we can.”

Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Chafee, R-RI.

The bills seek to harness growing public interest in hands-on restoration habitat activities, which are often popular with schools and volunteers. In addition, there is a growing recognition that habitats in many areas are so degraded that they cannot make a comeback without a concerted restoration effort.

“The Chafee-Gilchrest bill provides 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 had worked with Restore America’s Estuaries — a coalition of 11 regional coastal environmental groups with a collective membership of 250,000 — to urge Congress to pass the bill this year.

Under the bills, the federal government would pay up to 65 percent for restoration projects, with local organizations or governments providing the other 35 percent, which could be in the form of in-kind contributions, such as labor, or the donation of land.

“This bill is a flexible, voluntary approach that rewards efforts already under way to restore our estuaries, and hopefully will stimulate new plans,” Gilchrest said. “It is a terrific mix of federal help with private sector initiatives.”

Funding decisions would be made by a council of federal agencies. The Gilchrest bill differs slightly from the Chafee measure in that it would also ask the governors of coastal states to form regional teams to review project applications based on the needs and priorities of the states in that region. The region would then forward its preferences to the national council.

All projects would have to provide long-term monitoring to assess their success.

The likelihood for the legislation’s passage is considered good. Similar legislation was approved by the Senate at the end of last year, but not in time to be taken up by the House.

Also, the measure was among the 10 environmental priorities of congressional Republicans that were announced on Earth Day by Chafee and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY.

Still, even if fully funded, the bill would provide only hundreds of dollars per acre for restoration projects that often cost many times that much.

Mike Hirshfield, CBF’s vice president for Resource Protection, acknowledged that the $315 million for the first five years of the program is only a “down payment” toward achieving the million-acre restoration goal. The hope is that funding would be increased for the second five years of the effort.

“We believe that by 2005, the program will be such a demonstrable success that Congress will increase the amount of money substantially,” he said.

The bills don’t say how the money would be divided. Hirshfield said that if the funds were divided evenly among coastal areas represented by the Restore America’s Estuaries groups, the Bay would get about $7 million a year in restoration assistance.