A bill that officially extends the federal-state Bay cleanup partnership for six years and calls for increased funding for the Chesapeake restoration effort, was overwhelmingly approved by Congress.

The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act authorizes the continued operation of the state-federal Bay Program through 2005 and calls for giving it up to $30 million a year — nearly $12 million more than it now receives.

In addition, the bill requires federal agencies to adhere to the Bay Program’s nutrient reduction and other goals when managing land in the watershed.

The bill also permanently establishes a Small Watershed Grants Program for the Bay region. That program already exists, but only because Congress has specifically allocated $750,000 in each of the past three years. The new program would make future funding nearly automatic. The popular grants program helps organizations and local governments launch locally designed and implemented projects that would help their communities and the Bay.

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 clearing up technical details that prevented local groups from using watershed grants for certain restoration activities.

Lawmakers said the bill was significant because it signals support for the Bay Program to other lawmakers. “It is important that the Congress express its continued support for the cleanup and the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Rep. Herb Bateman, R-VA, who sponsored the bill in the House.

Indeed, during House debate on the bill, many lawmakers from the watershed lined up to praise the Bay Program as a unique partnership that brings federal and state agencies together to solve multistate problems.

“This has been one of the largest voluntary, multijurisdictional water quality and water resource restoration programs in the history of our nation, and it’s been a model program we can now use in many other multijurisdictional bodies of water,” said Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD.

The legislation also brought praise from lawmakers outside the watershed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-OR, called the Bay Program a “great example of watershedwide management” under which “the Bay is improving, albeit slowly.”

Rep. Ron Kind, D-WI, said the Bay Program “embodies an approach to water quality and water quality management that I believe is truly the wave of the future.” Citing the Bay Program’s partnerships between governments, agencies and citizens, and its watershed-based cleanup approach as an example, Kind said he was proposing a similar program for the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Not everyone was supportive. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-TX, said too many regional programs stretch resources thin nationwide. “My concern is funding,” he said. “I believe this bill further divides already scarce resources.”

Ultimately, the bill passed 412-7. The Senate approved the bill unanimously. After minor differences are worked out, the measure will go to President Clinton.

The bill would allow Congress to spend up to $30 million a year for the Bay Program, but actual appropriations would still have to be made annually by Congress. The measure is important because any funding increase would be difficult without advance Congressional authorization. The money is used to support Bay monitoring and modeling programs that help decision makers, as well as for grants to states, nonprofits, local governments and others to help achieve Bay restoration objectives.

The Bay Program is a partnership that includes the states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the federal government, represented by the EPA. More than 25 federal agencies are involved in Bay Program activities.

The legislation requires federal agencies that own or operate facilities within the watershed to develop and implement management plans that comply with nutrient reduction, habitat restoration and other commitments in various Bay agreements. While agencies committed to that in a 1998 agreement, the bill makes compliance legally binding.

“As a landholder which controls more than 2 million acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the federal government has an important responsibility for the stewardship of the Bay’s resources,” said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who introduced the bill in the Senate.

In addition, the bill requires the Bay Program to complete a report every five years that assesses the health of the Bay ecosystem and whether current efforts are meeting restoration goals.

The bill also directs the EPA to launch a five-year study to determine the “status and trends” of living resources in the Bay and to determine how they have responded to any water quality improvements in the Chesapeake. The study is to examine whether food chains in the Bay have been affected by water quality, and to recommend further management actions needed to restore a “healthy and balanced ecosystem.”