Congress Moves to Invest in Estuaries

Congress reaffirmed its support for and strong commitment to the National Estuary Program, a time-tested, non-regulatory program that enables communities to restore and protect the bays and estuaries they call home. Puget Sound is one of 28 “estuaries of national significance” along every coast that will benefit directly from legislation approved by Congress. The legislation had unanimous, bipartisan support from Washington’s Congressional delegation: Senators Cantwell and Murray, and Representatives DelBene, Heck, Herrera Beutler, Jayapal, Kilmer, Larsen, Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers, Schrier, and Smith.

The Protect and Restore America’s Estuaries Act, with strong bipartisan support and unanimous approval from the Senate, was signed into law on January 13, 2021. The Act reaffirms support for the work of the National Estuary Program, and nearly doubles the annual funding limit to $50 million. Under the new law, each NEP could receive as much as $1 million each year. The Puget Sound Partnership works with communities at the local level to protect the coastal resources essential for salmon, orcas, tourism, commerce, storm protection, clean water, and marine-based food supply such as shellfish aquaculture. Increasing threats from pollution, harmful algal blooms, accelerating land loss, and risks to biodiversity threaten the vitality of estuaries across the country, and are a growing concern.

“These actions demonstrate a clear recognition by Congress of the economic and environmental value of our nation’s estuaries and coasts,” said Lexie Bell, chair of the national nonprofit Association of National Estuary Programs, established in 1995 to bring the National Estuary Programs together for collaboration and shared learning.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the original sponsor of the bill introduced in July 2019 said, “Estuaries nurture a vast array of marine life, filter pollutants from rivers before they reach the sea, and are the natural infrastructure that protects human communities from floods and storms. As extreme weather events increasingly threaten these nurseries of the sea, I’m very proud this important legislation was signed into law, so these critical waterways will continue to be protected.”

Senators Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Cassidy of Louisiana, and Carper of Delaware were instrumental in securing passage of the bill and are longtime champions of estuaries and coastal protection.

“The National Estuary Program provides crucial funding to ensure we can remove toxic pollutants from stormwater, protect and restore habitat, reopen shellfish beds, and mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “We are greatly appreciative of the strong support from our entire Congressional delegation for the important work being done in our estuaries through our program and in collaboration with so many partners,” said Blackmore.

Last year, the National Estuary Program provided emergency funding to trap and remove invasive European green crab from north Puget Sound. If these crabs establish populations here, they will decimate important nursery habitat for salmon and Dungeness crab.