Congress last year set a goal of restoring 1 million acres of estuary habitat over the next 10 years, but the effort is already off to a slow start.

Although the Estuary and Clean Water Act, overwhelmingly approved by Congress, called for spending $50 million on locally sponsored restoration projects next year, the Bush administration only proposed spending $2.2 million, and that money is slated for planning.

The Senate has approved the full $2.2 million, but House bills include only $200,000.

Proponents of the bill are hoping to get some money for on-the-ground work included when Congress returns to work on appropriations bills in September, but with federal revenues reduced by tax cuts and a slowing economy, they admit that will be tough.

“We’re pushing a pretty large block up a very steep hill,” said Mark Wolf-Armstrong, president of Restore America’s Estuaries, a coalition of 11 environment groups that proposed the program.

“Basically, the phrase that is used on the Hill is ‘no new [program] starts,’” Wolf-Armstrong said. “It’s been a very hard wall to break through. We heard that same message on both the House and Senate sides.”

The bill set a national goal of restoring 1 million acres of estuarine habitat, such as oyster reefs, underwater grass beds and wetlands, over the next decade. To start the job, it authorized spending $275 million over the first five years of the program, including $50 million next year.

The money would go for projects undertaken by local groups and communities. The projects would have to be approved by a national council that includes representatives from the EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture.

The program does not divide money among estuaries, but the Bay was expected to be a major beneficiary because it is the nation’s largest estuary. The program could help achieve a number of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goals related to habitat restoration.

Although the legislation that created the program authorized $275 million, it still requires an actual appropriation by Congress each year before money can be spent. The money contained in the spending bills for next year that are being developed by Congress would help to develop a plan for the program, but not fund any projects.

“We believe that they should at least have some money there to do some projects to get the system running,” Wolf-Armstrong said. “We have already done a lot of the groundwork, and it shouldn’t take them a whole year to get their sea legs about this program.”

But, he said, last year’s authorization should eventually allow the full $275 million to be spent, even if it takes longer than five years. That, however, would make it more difficult to meet the 1 million acre goal.

“Time is what we are losing here, and not necessarily money,” Wolf-Armstrong said.