WASHINGTON – The House this week approved $350 million for estuary restoration efforts over the next five years, including $150 million dedicated to the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.
The funding came in two parts Tuesday night: Reauthorization of the Chesapeake Bay Program and approval of a new $200 million Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act, which aims to promote the restoration of 1 million acres of habitat.
The $150 million the House approved for the bay program is $50 million more than what was previously authorized under the Clean Water Act.
The Senate passed a single measure in March that incorporates both the Chesapeake and the estuary programs. Minor differences need to be worked out between the two versions of the measure before it can be sent to the president for final approval.
“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,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, the lead sponsor of the estuary habitat bill.
“We know how to do it. Now let us roll up our sleeves, put on our boots, and get to work,” Gilchrest said Tuesday on the floor of the House.
Both the House and Senate version of the estuary habitat bill would provide federal assistance to restoration projects by local schools, non-profit groups, neighborhood associations, and state and local governments, who would be required to provide at least 35 percent of the total project cost.
Gilchrest’s bill would create an Estuary Habitat Restoration Council that would review applications and parcel out money for local projects that had been pre-approved by regional review councils. He said the council would not be “a new layer of federal bureaucracy,” but rather a body created to coordinate “existing estuary efforts.”
Gilchrest said that population growth, dredging, paving, pollution, dams and sewage threaten estuaries, where saltwater and freshwater mix. The need to protect estuary habitats is especially critical because of their economic value: He pointed out that oyster harvests have decreased more than 29 million pounds in the last 30 years.
“Restoring habitat is the best way to bring back many important species,” said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Early restoration efforts are already showing significant returns and have convinced Congress that substantial support for restoration is essential.”
Peter Marx, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Program, said the additional money for that program will allow it to continue its current activities, as well as fund a five-year study on the bay’s resources. The extra money will also let the program increase and make permanent the Small Watershed Grants Program, which gives grants to local watershed protection groups.
The House version of the bill was co-sponsored by all members Maryland’s congressional delegation except Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, who voted for the final version nonetheless. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Maryland, introduced the Senate version of the bill.
Gilchrest and Baker said they prefer the Senate version of the bill because it does not contain a restriction on citizen participation in funded projects. If the Senate and the House settle their differences over the bill — no one involved with the measures indicated they expect problems in that regard — the president is expected to sign the bill into law.