U.S. Senate Approves Whitehouse-Vitter Estuary Legislation
Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Senate today unanimously approved bipartisan legislation authored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and David Vitter (R-LA) to reauthorize the National Estuary Program (NEP). 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. Authorization for this important program expired in 2010.
“Estuaries provide vital ecosystems for fisheries and wildlife, and they also serve as buffers against dangerous winds and storm surges – protecting homes and critical infrastructure in our coastal communities,” said Whitehouse. “This legislation will help ensure that we continue protecting these vital resources, and I thank Senator Vitter for working with me to get this done. On a Rhode Island note, I’m proud to continue Senator John Chafee’s legacy in championing this program.”
“Given that Louisiana’s Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary plays an important role in protecting thousands of miles of our coastal wetlands and preserving our rich cultural heritage, Louisianians are certainly familiar with the need for a robust estuary program,” said Vitter. “My bipartisan legislation will provide much needed improvements to the National Estuary Program, which will restore some of our most vulnerable wildlife, fish, and shellfish habitats in the heart of the Barataria and Terrebonne basins.”
Although the program expired in 2010, it has continued to receive funding through the congressional appropriations process. Reauthorizing the law, however, provides an opportunity to make needed improvements to the program. The new legislation would provide authorization for the NEP at $26 million per year while also limiting the amount of the funding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – which administers the program – can use for overhead. This change will help ensure that more funds are directed straight to the field programs. The new legislation would also create a competitive grant program that would allow urgent and challenging issues, such as habitat loss and flooding, to be prioritized with funding.
Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay NEP 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. It is estimated that Narragansett Bay generates more than $2.3 billion and supports more than 66,000 jobs per year in Rhode Island.
Historically, Louisiana’s estuaries have protected thousands of square miles of land along the coast – including some of the nation’s busiest ports, high yielding fisheries, and vast oil and mineral deposits. 80 percent of all coastal wetland loss in the lower 48 states occurs in Louisiana, with its estuaries accounting for nearly 40 percent of the entire make-up of United States estuarine marshes.
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 2013 were valued at $5.5 billion, and 11 million recreational fishermen took over 71 million saltwater fishing trips.
The Whitehouse-Vitter bill is nearly identical to legislation approved by the House of Representatives earlier this year to reauthorize the NEP. The two bills will need to be reconciled before President Obama can sign the reauthorization into law.
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