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Senate and House Agree to Create New Program for Ocean and Coastal Ecosystems

Whitehouse Program Could Fund Projects in Rhode Island and Other Coastal States

Washington, DC – Today a House-Senate conference committee announced a final bipartisan compromise on legislation to reauthorize the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA).  The compromise bill includes a provision crafted by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) authorizing a new program within the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out projects that would enhance ocean and coastal ecosystem resiliency.

“In Rhode Island and throughout the country, the strength of our economy is tied directly to the health of our oceans and coasts.  This program will provide a new avenue through which we can protect and restore those ecosystems,” said Whitehouse.  “While I would have preferred to establish a separate oceans endowment with broader authority, this program within the Army Corps will enable important projects to go forward that might have otherwise languished.  It represents an important step in our nation’s effort to protect coastal resources, and I look forward to supporting this program going forward.”

The Whitehouse program, when funded, will authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study once every five years – in coordination with states, nonprofit organizations, and other stakeholders – to determine the feasibility of projects in coastal zones to enhance ocean and coastal ecosystem resiliency.  Through the study, the Army Corps will identify specific projects to carry out.

Eligible projects could potentially include efforts to:

  • Make beaches more resilient to coastal erosion;
  • Restore wetlands that serve as important buffers to protect coastal property from storm surges;
  • Carry out planning initiatives to help ecosystems adapt to sea level rise.

While the broader National Endowment for the Oceans that Whitehouse had pushed for was not included, neither was a House provision that would have undermined the National Ocean Policy established by Executive Order in President Obama’s first term.  The full WRRDA reauthorization authorizes civil works projects and policies for the Army Corps of Engineers, generally.  Now that the conference agreement has been announced, the House and Senate are both expected to pass it in the near future.  It will then go on to President Obama to be signed into law.

Reaction from Around Rhode Island:

“Here in Rhode Island our quality of life and local economy are deeply connected to the health of our coastlines where we are already seeing the impacts of climate change,” said Governor Lincoln D. Chafee. “I commend Senator Whitehouse for securing investment in common sense solutions to prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change, and ensure that our beaches and coastal wetlands are here for generations to come.”

“We applaud Senator Whitehouse for his vision in securing resources to improve the resilience of coastal areas in the face of rapid climate change,” said Jonathan Stone, Executive Director of Save The Bay.  “The ecological health of our nation's coastal wetlands and the survival of our coastal communities hangs in the balance.  This is nowhere more true than in Rhode Island.  Now we have a fighting chance to protect both.”

“The coastal environment faces unprecedented threats from increasingly intense and frequent storms, erosion, and rising sea levels,” said Terry Sullivan, RI State Director of The Nature Conservancy. “This program is critical to our efforts to protect nature, property, and infrastructure today and into the future.”

“Rising sea level and severe weather events are having a huge impact on coastal communities and ecosystems throughout the coastal regions of the country,” said Bruce Corliss, Dean of the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.  “This legislation to foster coastal sustainability and resilience is critically important to address these changes along the U.S. coastline and reflects Senator Whitehouse's commitment to significant oceanic and environmental issues facing the nation.”

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