We are truly blessed in Maryland with an abundance of natural resources. We live right in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and we reap the benefits this rich estuary has to offer. Yet our watershed is changing every day, and if we’re not careful, we will squander the most generous natural resource of all.

Maryland has lost more than 70 percent of the wetlands that historically were part of our state, the greatest loss of any state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We’ve also lost important forested waterfront land, and we’ve seen the degradation of submerged vegetation. If you are wondering what effect this has on the Bay, ask a waterman. In the last 30 years, the oyster harvests in the Bay has fallen from 25 million pounds to 1 million pounds. Recreational and commercial fishing, tourism and the quality of life rooted in the health of our nation’s estuaries are being lost.

But our state is not alone in the loss of important estuary habitat. Coastal Louisiana loses about 25,000 acres of coastal marshes a year — an area roughly the size of the District of Columbia. Around San Francisco Bay, 95 percent of the original wetlands have been destroyed and only 300 of the original 6,000 miles of stream habitat in the Central Valley support spawning salmon.

Estuaries are bodies of water along our coasts that are formed when freshwater from rivers flows into and mixes with saltwater from the ocean. They are often not called estuaries at all but bogs, or bays, or lagoons or sounds. This mixing of fresh and salt water creates a unique environment that brims with life of all kinds — a transition zone between the land and sea known as an estuary. The estuary gathers and holds an abundance of life-giving nutrients from the land and from the ocean, forming an ecosystem that contains more life per square inch than even the nation’s richest Midwest farmland.

Healthy estuaries are among the most productive natural systems on earth and are loved for the opportunities they offer for fishing, swimming, boating, diving, wildlife viewing, hunting, learning and working. In part, because of the wonder of estuaries, half of our nation’s population resides on or near estuary coastlines. Estuaries are also visited and vacationed in by more than 180 million Americans annually — about 70 percent of the entire U.S. population (based on 1993 figures). Fishing, tourism and recreational boating depend on vibrant and productive estuaries. Commercial and sportfishing contribute $111 billion a year to the nation’s economy. Estuaries support 75 percent of the commercial fish catch and 80 to 90 percent of the recreational catch of fish.

In addition to providing homes for biological resources, estuary habitats are now valued in may areas for their positive effect on property values. Wetlands and other estuarine habitats have saved many communities from the devastating costs that flooding often causes. This habitat stabilized shorelines and helps to prevent erosion. Estuary habitats serve as a natural filtration system for rainwater. Water passes through the marshy bogs and swamps, and recharges underground aquifers. Pollutants, such as pesticides, nitrates and other substances, are left behind. These are all services that nature provides for free that otherwise would cost many millions of dollars.

Over the years, estuaries have suffered from a “death by a thousand cuts.” Small, incremental losses of forests, wetlands and submerged vegetation have added up over time to create a critical situation. It’s not enough to just stop the further loss of important habitat. We have to do more.

I’ve introduced legislation in Congress to reverse this trend. We need to rebuild our estuaries and the first step is restoring important habitat. The goal of my bill is to restore 1 million acres of estuary habitat over the next 10 years.

There are already a lot of groups out there doing just that. They range from nonprofit groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to elementary schools that sponsor a project to rebuild a wetland at a nearby stream. This legislation builds on these existing efforts and gives our nation’s public and private sectors the tools they need to effectively work together in restoring critical habitats.

And most importantly, the bill doesn’t punish anyone or tell them what to do with their land, because I believe, sometimes you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. Any effort to restore habitats must be community-driven and based on incentives and cooperation. The legislation which I have introduced offers a model for streamlined government and private sector cooperation and partnerships to reverse the decline in our estuaries and help restore these great U.S. natural treasures.

Very recently, I spent a few hours visiting an ecologically significant site in Anne Arundel County locally known as the Arden Bog, whose protection and restoration efforts are being driven by local citizens and community organizations. They are actually using innovative techniques to reverse some of the traditional “open space” efforts of state and local government planners, which have led to the damage of much of this magnificent site. This effort serves as a perfect example of the kind of citizen initiative this bill seeks to promote.

The legislation authorized $315 million over five years as matching grants for restoration projects. Local schools, nonprofit groups, neighborhood associations, and state and local governments could apply for the funds. The local group would be required to provide at least 35 percent of the total project cost, with the federal share no more than 65 percent.

That cost-sharing formula will actually leverage up to $10 of on-the-ground restoration work for every $1 in federal funding.

I believe that by joining together, we can not only stop the loss of critical habitat we’ve seen in the last half century, we can actually reverse it. We all can play a role in restoring our estuaries and thereby guarantee our quality of life.