Threats to Ocean Health Now Being Considered in Water Resources Development Act Conference

For all of us who depend on the oceans for food, jobs or recreation, the coming days on Capitol Hill couldn’t be more important.

Today begins the first day of a House and Senate conference that will negotiate a final Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Both the House and Senate have passed their own bills, and now they will work to resolve the differences between the two bills. The outcome of this negotiation will have far reaching implications for the environment, including whether the legislation severely weakens the National Environmental Policy Act’s application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) projects, including ones affecting the ocean. The future of our oceans will also be squarely impacted by two other provisions of this bill: one highly problematic provision in the House bill (adopted as an amendment offered by Congressman Bill Flores from Texas) that would block the Corps from implementing the National Ocean Policy; and one very positive provision in the Senate bill establishing a much-needed National Endowment for the Oceans.

The Flores rider in the House bill, which was added at the last minute in a highly partisan vote,  would prohibit the Corps from implementing key elements of the National Ocean Policy that involve smart ocean planning and ecosystem-based management. Ecosystem-based management calls for decisions based on consideration of the overall ecosystem’s healthy functioning – it’s a way to ensure that instead of just addressing individual problems as they occur, we’re looking at the whole picture of how ocean uses interact. Smart ocean planning is a process for pulling all interested parties in a region together – from the federal and state partners to business owners and the public – to help identify ocean areas that are appropriate for industrial use and where habitat and wildlife need protection. Both ecosystem-based management and smart ocean planning encourage thinking ahead so that we can maximize use of our ocean resources, while ensuring that they are protected for everyone’s enjoyment – now and in the future.

The Corps has important responsibilities with respect to ocean and coastal planning and management, including protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, permitting facilities for growing fish and shellfish and planning for storm mitigation and sea level rise. Given its range of responsibilities, the Corps should be encouraged – not prohibited – from coordinating with other agencies and with coastal states. To ban a key agency like the Corps from discussions with other agencies and states on how to plan for the future of our ocean and coastal waters is simply bad policy.

All of us have a stake in the oceans, from ports and renewable energy businesses to fishermen and beachgoers. Yet oceans, coasts, and the coastal communities they support are under increasing strain from threats such as sea level rise and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy. Planning for these changes is critical and what the National Ocean Policy is designed to promote.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate passed bill looks to protect oceans, calling for the establishment of a National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO) to improve ocean health and support ocean jobs and wildlife. NEO would authorize grants to states, regional and tribal entities, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions to support efforts to conserve and restore ocean resources. Grants may fund projects such as fisheries science, oil spill research and response, and ocean observing and monitoring systems. As we ask our oceans to provide for us more and more with increased energy, shipping, and other growing uses, we need to ensure we’re also investing in the health of these resources; NEO will help do this.

The Senate and House members that have been appointed to the WRDA conference now have the opportunity to strip out the bad Flores rider and preserve the National Endowment for the Oceans. Their choices now will impact ocean and coastal health for decades.