House Approves Bill to Restore One Million Coastal Acres

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 14, 2000 (ENS) - One million acres of estuary habitat could be restored over the next 10 years thanks to efforts of two Republican lawmakers - a Congressman and a Senator - one living, one dead.

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Representative Wayne Gilchrest sponsored the House version of the bill (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
The House has unanimously passed the Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act, a version of which has already been approved by the Senate, and President Bill Clinton is expected to sign the bill shortly.

If signed into law, the legislation would restore estuaries through a voluntary, incentive based approach that builds on local efforts already under way.

"So much has already been lost, that it's time we start the process of restoring our estuaries to what they once were," said U.S. Representative Wayne Gilchrest, the Maryland Republican who wrote the House version of the bill which passed the House late Tuesday. "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."

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The late Senator John Chafee sponsored the Senate version of the bill (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
A similar bill authored by the late Senator John Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, passed the Senate earlier this year.

The House and Senate will now meet to work out the minor differences and send a final version to the President, who is expected to sign the bill into law.

The bill has been endorsed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Restore America's Estuaries, a coalition of community based organizations representing 250,000 Americans devoted to restoring America's estuaries.

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Estuaries can help prevent flooding in coastal areas (Photo courtesy EPA)
Estuaries are bodies of water along the coast where fresh water from rivers mixes in with salt water from the ocean. They are often known as bays, gulfs, sounds, inlets or marshes, and they offer food and shelter to plant and animal life.

More than 75 percent of the commercial fish and shellfish species harvested in the U.S. depend on the habitat provided by estuaries at some point during their life cycle. Estuaries also offer recreational opportunities to millions of Americans. Their wetlands protect landowners from flooding and provide important buffers that protect water quality by filtering runoff.

These functions that estuaries provide also have economic value. Commercial and recreational fishing, boating and tourism provide more than 28 million jobs nationwide. Fishing generates $111 billion a year for the U.S. economy.

Last year, 73 million people spent more than $10 billion on recreational boating products and services, while $38 billion was spent on seafood.

The Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act seeks to reverse the rapid deterioration of estuaries and the loss of the resources they support.

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The Chesapeake Bay has lost most of its sea grass beds (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
In the Chesapeake Bay, for example, 90 percent of sea grass meadows were destroyed by 1990, and oyster harvests fell from 25 million pounds to 1 million pounds over the last 30 years. In Louisiana, 25,000 acres of coastal marshes are destroyed each year, while the San Francisco Bay has lost 95 percent of its original wetlands.

The bill is "critical to saving the Bay," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Restoring habitat is the best way to bring back many important species," Baker said. "Early restoration efforts are already showing significant returns and have convinced Congress that substantial support for restoration is essential."

The bill would establish a national restoration strategy to bring together federal, state and local estuary restoration planning efforts. The bill authorizes $200 million over five years for restoration projects.

Local schools, nonprofit groups, neighborhood associations, and state and local governments could apply for the funds. Local groups would be required to provide at least 35 percent of total project costs, with the federal share at no more than 65 percent.

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Maryland's coastal bays are threatened by increasing development (Photo courtesy Maryland Department of Natural Resources)
"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."

A national council would be established to review project applications and recommend projects to the Corps of Engineers which would make the final decisions. All projects must provide for long term monitoring to assess the success of the restoration project.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would be directed to maintain a database of monitoring information and assist the council in preparing a biennial report to Congress on the success of the restoration strategy.

"If we want to bring estuaries back to health, we need to commit the time money and creativity necessary to restore the vital organs that make estuaries live and breathe," Gilchrest told the House. "We know how to do it. Now let us roll up our sleeves, put on our boots and get to work."