Tucked inside a $397 billion spending bill passed by Congress in February was $1 million for a new estuary habitat restoration program.

Like spat on an oyster bar, the funds are seed money that estuary restoration advocates call a “down payment” on the $275 million Congress vowed to spend when it passed the National Estuary Restoration Act in 2000.

While the $1 million will be divided among a handful of estuary restoration projects, advocates are thrilled that the program finally got any funding, given the nation’s growing deficits and other growing demands for federal spending.

“It’s a breakthrough, but it’s only a down payment,” said Suzanne Giles, National policy and science director for Restore America’s Estuaries, a national estuary restoration group.

The program authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to match $275 million with state and local funds over five years to restore estuary habitats such as tidal marshes, oyster reefs and underwater grass beds.

The 2000 law also directed the Corps and other federal agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to create a national estuary restoration strategy and establish a national council to develop criteria to fund projects.

The interagency Estuary Habitat Restoration Council this winter completed work on the national strategy, which is aimed at fulfilling the act’s goal of restoring 1 million acres of estuary habitat by 2010. The strategy includes criteria for restoration projects and monitoring as well as incentives for innovative partnerships and technologies.

The program has had powerful champions in both the House and Senate, including Senators Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) and John Warner (R-VA) and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD).

Still, funding for the new program did not clear the thicket of legislative and administrative hurdles until Rep. Sonny Callahan, who represented Mobile Bay in Alabama, took an interest in the program. Callahan is a Republican who chaired the committee that provides funds to the Corps until he retired last year.

Although better known for promoting dams and dredging, Callahan included $1 million in the House version of the Corps’ annual appropriations bill last summer. But, the bill, like many other appropriations bills, was not completed until after the 2002 election. By then, Callahan was lobbying for Dawson & Associates, a Washington firm that lobbies for large water projects.

Nevertheless, the 1,507-page “omnibus” appropriations bill funding dozens of federal agencies included a single line providing money for the new estuary habitat restoration program.

Unfortunately, the battle for funding is not over, advocates say.

The Bush administration did not request funding for the program when it released its 2004 budget request in February. And, agencies like the Corps will be expected to tighten their belts to help pay for tax cuts and to reduce the growing federal deficit.

But, the fact that the program received some funding will eliminate a long-standing bias against “new starts” enforced by budget examiners.

Estuaries have received national attention in recent years because most commercially harvested fish and shellfish depend on their brackish waters for survival.

Estuary experts also estimate that 75 percent of the nation’s rare species and migratory waterfowl also use estuaries.

Dredging, dams, development and pollution have taken their toll on estuary habitat, and new projects to deepen ports and channels are still being proposed.

But efforts to restore lost habitat have also been launched in estuaries from coast to coast, including the Chesapeake. To help make the case for funding, Giles and other advocates quickly compiled a list of more than 50 estuary restoration projects that could be built immediately if the money were available.

Actual funding for restoration has not always followed Congressional promises, called “authorizations,” to provide such funds, according to a recent study.

“What we have found is that the potential [for funding] is far greater than the reality,” said Mark Wolf-Armstrong, president of Restore America’s Estuaries.

Restore America’s Estuaries found that Congress had authorized $7.2 billion through 74 different federal programs that could be used to restore estuary habitat, but that appropriators had provided only a tiny fraction of those promised funds in final spending bills.

Therefore, advocates see this year’s funding for the estuary habitat restoration program as a small but important step in the right direction.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s father, former Sen. John Chafee, was an early champion of the program and a long-time advocate of efforts to restore Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay until he died in 2000. In addition to defending the nation’s clean water and wetland laws, the former senator from Rhode Island pushed for eelgrass restoration in Narragansett Bay at a time when some resource managers doubted Narragansett Bay was clean enough to support such projects.

Chafee was also a founder of the National Estuary Program run by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and he recognized in the mid-1990s that the NEP was an important planning program that needed a restoration counterpart.

“We’d reached a point where we’d lost most of the eelgrass beds, but had developed the technology, and had improved water enough, to permit restoration efforts,” said Janet Coit, a former Chafee staffer who now works for the Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island.

Coit credited Save the Bay, a Rhode Island group dedicated to saving Narragansett Bay, with keeping the issue in front of Chafee. But, it also helped that Chafee had a life-long love affair with the outdoors, including Narragansett Bay. “He just reveled in going out and experiencing nature,” she said. “He thought Yogi Berra got it right when he said, ‘You can see a lot by looking’”