Water Funding for Estuaries: The Glue That Guards Against Storm Devastation

Waterkeepers address estuaries as the first line of defense against devastating storms as they went before Congress to give testimony on re-authorization of the National Estuary Program under the Clean Water Act, along with several proposed funding bills.

There are major changes to the Clean Water Act (CWA) that some believe will imperil numerous river systems, lakes and the coasts. Ahead of these changes, several key U.S. waterkeepers provided testimony to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on Protecting and Restoring America’s Iconic Waters.

The witnesses were clear and coordinated in their efforts to express how wetlands, specifically estuaries, are needed to buffer against storms. Their key points:

  • Loss of estuaries leads to economic devastation.
  • The science is there to save the remaining estuaries.
  • Federal funding is leveraged well by restoration programs.
  • Federal funding with a re-authorization of the National Estuary Program (NEP) and specific estuary restoration programs is critical.
  • The data generated under wetlands restoration programs helps governments make better decisions for stabilizing economies and increasing resilience.
  • National coordination of estuary protection at the federal level is critical to responding to U.S. security.

The primary takeaway from the hearing was that clean water lovers, storm sufferers, fishing industries, farmers and government leaders can get together behind bolder federal funding and national coordination. The overriding sentiment is that bipartisan support on water resources protection through the NEP, which is overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can reduce and address public safety impacts, regional disruptions and disaster losses caused by storms, which are increasing in frequency and severity.

So what do we face? We face erosion, sea level rise, increased storminess; we have an opportunity to preserve our fisheries our tourism, our public and private infrastructure,” said Tom Ford, director of the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program, The Bay Foundation.
 Whispers Grow Across the Wetlands

Garrett Graves, representative of Louisiana’s 6th district, noted that the Mississippi River is at record flooding. He said he likes to remind the subcommittee how three Canadian provinces and several regions of the nation all drain to his district.

“Congressman Rodney Davis from Illinois calls Lake Pontchartrain his ‘sewage treatment plant,’ -- I’m not sure that’s a compliment,” he said.

He invited Kristi Trail, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, to the hearing. The lake is the drainage basin for the Mississippi River, and is also a water resource for several regions. Trail said the foundation has been working for 30 years on its data, which is essential for “smart government decisions.” In her written testimony, Trail noted that the organization’s “comprehensive scientific monitoring is released in real-time through Hydrocoast maps produced by GIS specialists and released bi-weekly since 2013.” Government agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, use these maps.

Though the lake -- just north of New Orleans and larger in surface area than Lake Mead, Lake Powell and Lake Tahoe -- is not part of NEP, and has been funded separately by Congress under the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Restoration Program. Trail’s organization is targeting natural habitat restoration along the lake’s armored south shore.

Restoring targeted habitat sites, such as swamps and marshes, is integral to recreating a self-sustaining coast and permanent storm protection for coastal communities,” according to her testimony.

In addition to Trail and Ford, the other witnesses were:

  • Preston D. Cole, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, addressing the Great Lakes Restoration Program
  • Dave Pine, Supervisor, District 1, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Chair of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority Governing Board
  • Laura Blackmore, Executive Director, Puget Sound Partnership
  • William C. Baker, President, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

“The estuaries are the beating heart of a healthy marine ocean system,” said Peter DeFazio, subcommittee co-chair and representative of Oregon’s 4th district.

In the 18th century, the United States had 392 million aces of wetlands, but by the 1980s -- due to population growth and patterns and agricultural distribution and development, including wetlands drainage, pollutant discharges and other factors -- 53% of wetlands had already been lost. In the Midwestern farm belt states alone, more than 36 million acres of wetlands had been lost in 200 years, according to the 1990 report, Wetlands Loss Since the Revolution, by Thomas E. Dahl of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. From 1998 to 2004, wetlands increased by an average of 32,000 acres per year, but then through 2009, the U.S. was again losing wetlands at a rate of 13,800 acres per year, according to Dahl’s report in 2011.

 The Water Resources Subcommittee

Members of the subcommittee in attendance, co-chaired by Grace F. Napolitano, representative of California’s 32nd district, invited these witnesses and introduced them. The Congressmen explored the dangers of a federal government “slow to prioritize” water quality funding and asked the witnesses several questions.

The subcommittee not only addresses CWA funding that fuels estuary restoration under the NEP, but also is working to lay the groundwork for the 2020 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial bill that authorizes water infrastructure projects and improvements.

EPA recently sent its final Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS) to the White House, the major change to waters regulated under the CWA, which could result in funding reductions for wetlands protection. The co-chairs announced their outrage -- calling it “a gift to special interests.” Previously, their April letter to the heads of EPA and the the Army Corps of Engineers, articulates their strenuous objection to the WOTUS rule change and how it would result in pre-1972 water conditions.

"It is important to remember that in the days before enactment of the Clean Water Act, our nation’s waters were so polluted that they typically were unsafe for swimming, were unable to support life or they literally caught fire,” at a hearing on the Clean Water State Revolving Fund in March.

On the flip side, others say a change to WOTUS will prevent unnecessary bureaucracy and government spending on regulation of every “trickle” that might be considered a tributary to navigable waters under the current definition.

But on the day of the hearing, discussion around wetlands pollution was focused on how it results in economic losses. Because estuaries buffer cities and regions against intense storms, their losses to pollution dramatically increase state and local government costs when storms wreak havoc on people and structures. Several of the committee members preceded witness testimony with insights into the potential economic devastation caused by limiting progress on restoration plans.

Estuaries are unique and highly productive waters that are important to the ecological and economic basis of our nation,” said ranking member Congressman Bruce Westerman of Arkansas's 4th district, noting that the Lake Pontchartrain basin is home 22 essential habitats, and their fisheries provide much of the seafood harvested along the Gulf Coast.

He said NEP is a framework that works because it engages stakeholders that tailor solutions specific to regions. “We need to be sure that the individual estuary programs continue to effectively implement their management plans for protecting and restoring estuaries,” and stay away from bureaucracy that impedes plan implementations.

Co-chair DeFazio explored some economic attributes of estuaries:

  • $116 billion contributed annually to the economy is derived from estuaries in coastal states alone.
  • 2 million people are employed by ocean estuary-based tourism recreation.
  • 80% of the commercial and recreational fish caught depend on estuaries for part of their lives.
Race Against Time

Under the San Francisco Bay Restoration Act, San Francisco Bay Restoration -- a program that is 70% locally funded -- has achieved numerous successes, according to Pine. But it’s not enough.

“We’re in a race against time,” he said.

According to Pine’s testimony:

“In 2015, scientists released an update to the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals report warning that without rapid and significant investment in wetland restoration, rising seas and greater erosion will cause wetlands to shrink. The risk we face is that existing sites that could be restored will be drowned by the rising bay waters. Tidal wetlands could eventually retract to narrow strips or disappear altogether. Wetlands are the Bay’s first line of defense -- trapping polluted runoff before it reaches open water, buffering against flooding from rising sea levels and storms, preventing erosion and capturing greenhouse gases to counter climate change. If our tidal marshes disappear, so will this vital and natural system of protection.”

The San Francisco Bay Restoration Act (H.R. 1132) proposes $25 million annually for five years to accelerate Bay restoration and establishes a specific program office within EPA.

Ford noted that nationwide, NEPs are leveraging federal funding 19:1, and for the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program, The Bay Foundation leveraged funding 58:1.

We know how to put that money to effective use,” he said. 
The Science is There & A Model Bill Could Drive It

Blackmoore spoke about the roaring economy and beautiful ecology of the Puget Sound region, but, "it’s slowly dying… habitat degradation outpaces restoration,” she said.

The partnership’s Action Agenda is ready. “We know what we need to do,” she said, urging political fortitude to address funding gaps.

Funding falls woefully short for the need: “We’re barely holding our ground.” The Promoting United Government Efforts To Save Our Sound (PUGET SOS) Act (H.R. 2247) establishes an investment of $50 million and holds governments accountable, establishing a Puget Sound Program Office at EPA and requiring a Federal Task Force.

John Garamendi, representative of California’s 3rd district, discussed with Blackmmore how PUGET SOS could benefit the nation.

The Blueprint: The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Plan

The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, according to William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for 37 years. There are 19 million people living in the watershed.

The restoration began under President Ronald Reagan in 1987 with EPA as the lead with multiple federal agencies working on it. The agreement to cut nitrogen and phosphorus 40% by the year 2000 was missed, and the deadline extended to 2010 was missed again. When the Foundation sued EPA to achieve an enforceable plan, then EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson negotiated a settlement with state pollutant discharge reduction requirements for six states by a 2025 deadline. It is now regarded as the blueprint for NEP -- a game changer.

The federal government is the one jurisdiction which can do what science says must be done to treat the bay and all its rivers as a single ecological system,” said Baker.

However, 80 inches of rain in 2018 set the bay back badly -- low dissolved oxygen this year is likely to be is at its worst level in decades. While the levels had been nearly zero, there is a dead zone now. “We’re not done, recovery is fragile,” Baker said.

The program is the “best and last chance to save the bay,” but EPA must hold the state of Pennsylvania, which is behind, accountable, Baker said.

Federal Leadership & Funding Are Key to Reducing Further Estuary Losses

“Without the federal government’s involvement, we can’t effectively make this work on the local or state level,” said Ford.

The WOTUS change allows states to decide which waters it will protect, while retaining a minimum national standard. However, according to the co-chairs’ letter to EPA and the Army Corps, 26 states are prohibited or restricted from increasing standards beyond the CWA.

One such state is Idaho where the Big Lost River -- a tributary of the Snake River which is a tributary to the Columbia River that ends in the Pacific Ocean in Washington state -- and other waters that disappear in the state’s desert, have always been a challenge for regulators, according to E&E News. Where pollution discharges to “trickles” of water that are often navigable, the WOTUS definition change would eliminate CWA protections for such areas. But sometimes – such as two years ago – the Big Lost will gush through dry regions, perplexing government officials on how to regulate a river that disappears.

With President Donald Trump expected to sign off on the WOTUS change that recently reached his desk, funding for the CWA -- including the NEP -- could diminish.

Garamendi, however, appeared determined to drive federal leadership on estuaries -- he asked all the witnesses to follow up with a memo on their thoughts on whether there should be a federal requirement that agencies, such as the Army Corps, coordinate with NEPs.

Local Governments & Facing the Nation’s Most Pressing Issue

All the 28 NEPs could fill a day’s worth of the subcommittee’s time on “the successes the challenges we’ve had and continue to face,” Ford said, but there is “no end day.”

Debbie Murcasel-Powell, representing Florida’s 26th district, said she thinks the most important issue facing the U.S. is clean water, and asked Baker about how to address the pollution in the water now.

Baker answered that the goal is to slow the flow of additional pollutants into the water, to reduce costs and allow nature time to bounce back from what's there.

On local governments, Ford said municipalities pull their weight and lead, and are more effective when brought to the table from the outset.

Blackmoore also agreed:

Local government is where the rubber hits the road. We can’t do this without them.”

Baker added that farmers need technical assistance and cost-share dollars, while municipalities and corporations “need some help getting the job done.”

Estuaries: First Line of Defense

“Estuaries are the first line of defense for the impacts of climate change on coastal areas…just if you are concerned about increased storms, seal level rise or more water, estuaries are the first line of defense, call it whatever, estuaries are too important not to protect for the benefit of people in coastal areas,” said Baker.

He also noted that the best wetlands are made by nature.

Watch the hearing:

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