The Senate has unanimously approved Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and David Vitter’s (R-LA) bill to reauthorize the National Estuaries Program (NEP), which now heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.
The program was first established in 1987 by the late Senator John Chafee (R-RI) to protect and restore estuarine habitats threatened by pollution and overdevelopment. Congress has not reauthorized the NEP since it expired in 2010, jeopardizing important projects.
“Estuaries like Rhode Island’s beautiful Narragansett Bay are valuable to the American economy and our environment,” said Whitehouse, the Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Work’s Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife. “Reauthorizing the National Estuary Program will help ensure we continue to restore and protect these assets. I’m proud we could honor the legacy of Rhode Island Senator John Chafee and continue to defend some of our most precious natural places.”
Whitehouse, Brown, and Vitter’s bill will authorize the NEP at $26.5 million per year from Fiscal Years 2017 through 2021. While the program has been sustained through the appropriations process, the law authorizing the NEP expired in 2010 and Congress has failed to make important improvements that are contained in the new authorization. Those improvements include a competitive grant program to help address the causes of urgent challenges, such as habitat loss and flooding, and limits on the amount of funding the federal government can use for overhead to help ensure that more funds are directed to field programs.
The NEP is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and focuses on the habitats and living resources of 28 estuaries across the country. Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Estuary Program was one of the original six estuaries in the program, and over the years has brought millions of dollars in federal funding to the state. In 2013, Rhode Island’s ocean economy, which includes the Narragansett Bay, generated $2.1 billion and provided for over 41,000 jobs.
The National Estuary Program includes more than 42 percent of the continental U.S. shoreline and 15 percent of all Americans currently live within NEP designated watersheds. In the past decade, NEPs around the country have restored and protected over a million acres of estuarine habitat. It is estimated that the nation’s estuaries provide habitat for more than 75 percent of America’s commercial fish catch. According to NOAA, commercial fisheries landings in 2014 were valued at $5.4 billion, and 11 million recreational fishermen took 68 million saltwater fishing trips.