WASHINGTON – A House committee voted Thursday to extend a Chesapeake Bay restoration program for five years and to create a new program aimed at renewing 1 million acres of estuary habitat nationwide.
The new program authorizes $315 million over five years, the bulk of which would go to local governments and private groups that have developed estuary renewal projects and that could apply the money on the front lines of the fight to save estuaries.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, and co-sponsored by more than 100 House members, would allow up to 65 percent of a local project’s cost to be funded with federal dollars. A national council and seven regional councils would be set up to determine where the money would be spent.
Gilchrest said the measure will “eviscerate bureaucracy” by making information about existing estuary restoration efforts available to those who can apply it “on the ground.”
“It takes information that’s already out there, the information that’s collected” by the Chesapeake Bay Program and other entities and “implements it, by restoring oyster reefs, restoring natural grasses, taking down dams, in some cases eliminating dredging,” among other activities, Gilchrest said.
The measure would target the restoration of salt and freshwater coastal marshes, coastal forested wetlands, tidal flats, natural shoreline areas, shellfish and kelp beds, tidal river and stream banks, and other estuary habitats.
Besides monitoring the progress of estuary renewal projects through the councils, the bill would also establish a database of project techniques and other information that could be applied in various locations.
Only one committee member voiced opposition to the bill. Rep. Herbert Bateman, R-Va., said he thinks the program “adds to bureaucracy rather than diminishes it,” as Gilchrest claims.
Despite his objection, however, the estuary bill passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a voice vote Thursday. It must still be reviewed by the House Committee on Resources within the next 30 days before it can go to the full House.
A companion bill has already been passed out of committee in the Senate.
Also Thursday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved Bateman’s bill to reauthorize the Chesapeake Bay Program for another five years. The measure, which now goes to the full House, was passed with little discussion.
David Anderson, senior counsel and director of federal affairs at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was jubilant about the committee’s actions Thursday.
“The estuary bill is very forward looking, and it also requires a restoration strategy for estuaries on a nationwide basis,” Anderson said. “That’s a terrific step.”
The reauthorization of the Chesapeake Bay Program “allows the bay program to undertake … additional steps for restoring (the bay),” he said.