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Clean Estuaries Act

On April 15th, the House passed the Clean Estuaries Act (H.R. 4715), introduced by Reps. Tim Bishop (D-NY) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), by a vote of 278 - 128. This bipartisan bill reauthorizes the National Estuary Program through FY 2016 and makes improvements to the program. The Congress created the program in 1987 as an amendment to the Clean Water Act.

Estuaries are bodies of water that receive both outflows from rivers and tidal inflows from the ocean. They are transition zones between fresh water from rivers and saline water from the ocean. The mixing of fresh and salt water provides a unique environment that supports diverse habitats for a wide variety of living resources, including plants, fish, and wildlife. By improving the health of our estuaries, this bill will play a key role in strengthening our economy. Estuaries and associated coastal areas are major economic drivers for this nation. From a resource standpoint alone, healthy estuaries are very economically productive. Coastal areas of the United States account for 28 million jobs. 

Most commercially and recreationally important fish and shellfish species, such as striped bass, salmon, shad, shrimp, lobster, crabs, and oysters, depend on the sheltered habitat provided by estuaries, as well as estuaries' mix of saline and fresh water. Estuaries are often used as places for these species to spawn, and for their young to grow and develop. Commercial and recreational fishing annually accounts for $185 billion in revenues, and more than two million jobs. Estuaries provide habitat for 75 percent of the U.S. commercial fish catch and 80 to 90 percent of the recreational fish catch.

In addition to fishing, estuaries also provide significant economic value for the nation, including through sectors such as tourism, energy production, and navigation. For example, the University of California and the Ocean Foundation have determined that, on an annual basis, beach-going generates up to $30 billion of economic value, recreational fishing generates up to $26 billion, and coastal wildlife viewing generates up to $49 billion.

Many of the nation's estuaries are currently in poor ecological health. An impaired estuary not only impacts commercial and recreational fishing, it can also result in decreased tourism, among other factors. This bipartisan bill improves the National Estuary Program - increasing the program's  authorization from $35 million annually to $50 million annually to allow it to add additional estuaries, providing new accountability measures, and requiring EPA to submit a report to Congress on the program's effectiveness. 

                  Background on the National Estuary Program

                  Purpose of National Estuary Program. In 1987, the Congress created the National Estuary Program (NEP), as an amendment to the Clean Water Act, to promote comprehensive planning efforts to help protect nationally significant estuaries in the United States that are deemed to be threatened by pollution, development, or overuse. The NEP is a stakeholder-driven, non-regulatory program to address water quality problems and to target habitat restoration. The NEP coordinates and provides funding for long-term planning and management activities to address the complex factors that contribute to the degradation of estuaries.

                  Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans. Each approved estuary under the NEP develops a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP). The CCMP is the implementation framework for protecting and restoring the estuary. The CCMP identifies discrete activities that will be engaged in by particular parties to address priority problems. Developed by estuary stakeholders, the activities prescribed through the CCMP are based on consensus and will often involve coordination and collaboration between different stakeholder entities. EPA must approve the initial CCMP.

                  Estuaries in the National Estuary Program. There are currently 28 estuaries in the National Estuary Program. The EPA implements the program and oversees NEP activities in each of the 28 estuaries. While no new estuaries have been included in the NEP since 1995, EPA reports that numerous states, localities, and non-governmental organizations have expressed interest in 38 additional estuaries being included within the NEP. 

                  Key Provisions of the Bill

                  Increases National Estuary Program's Authorization. The bill reauthorizes EPA's National Estuary Program (NEP) through FY 2016 and increases the program's authorization from $35 million annually to $50 million annually in order to allow the program to add additional estuaries.

                  Adds New Accountability Measures. The bill requires that each approved estuary program under the NEP be evaluated every four years to determine whether it is meeting the objectives of its Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP). Evaluation results will be provided to the public, and unfavorable evaluations would require individual estuary programs to propose modifications to their CCMPs or risk reduction or elimination of federal assistance.

                  Requires Consistency with Locally-Driven Priorities. The bill requires that federal agency activities within the watershed are consistent with locally-driven estuary restoration priorities, and that federal agencies coordinate with each other in that regard. 

                  Requires EPA Evaluation of Program's Effectiveness. The bill requires the Administrator of EPA to undertake a programmatic evaluation of the National Estuary Program to assess its effectiveness in improving water quality, natural resources, and sustainable uses of included estuaries. The bill requires EPA to submit a report to Congress on the results of this evaluation.