Planning for the future health of our oceans and coastlines just became a little easier after a Congressional committee agreed on the reauthorization of a key waterway management law. The final outcome has many who rely on our oceans and coasts breathing a sigh of relief, as a damaging ocean rider was stricken while a new program to protect our coasts has been authorized.
After months of negotiating, a House-Senate conference committee released the final language of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) which will be voted on this week in the House and Senate. WRDA addresses management of our country’s waterways and coasts and encompasses billions of dollars in projects that impact a majority of our citizens. I last reported on this bill when it went to conference in November to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions. Provisions had been added on the House and Senate floor that placed the health of our oceans on the negotiating table.
When negotiations began, the House had passed a partisan amendment offered by Congressman Bill Flores (R-TX) that would block the Corps from implementing the National Ocean Policy. This Policy promotes smart ocean planning and ocean protection. The Senate had taken an entirely different approach by including an important provision, offered by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), which would establish a National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO) to support conservation and restoration of ocean resources.
The Flores rider would have restricted any funding for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects connected to the National Ocean Policy, a policy that addresses key ocean challenges, and promotes responsible ocean management. Flores’ damaging rider would have hindered our ability to protect important habitat and ocean wildlife, address changing ocean conditions like ocean acidification, build climate resilience, encourage sustainable use and provide greater certainty for businesses and other ocean users. With the failure of the Flores provision, Congress preserved a policy that promotes smart ocean planning and science-based management of our resources.
In addition, the final WRDA Bill includes some gains for ocean resource management, notably, a provision crafted by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to develop a new Army Corps program focused on ocean and coastal resiliency. This program authorizes the Corps, in coordination with states, nonprofit organizations, and other stakeholders, to conduct studies to determine the feasibility of projects to enhance ocean and coastal ecosystem resilience. The studies will help the Corps identify specific projects to carry out that could include restoring wetlands that offer protection from storms, making beaches more resilient to erosion and helping ecosystems adapt to sea level rise.
Our oceans and coasts are economic engines supporting tens of millions of jobs and billions of dollars in income from both the seafood industry and ocean-related tourism and recreation. With the climate changing and our oceans becoming busier and more stressed, the preservation of the National Ocean Policy and the inclusion of a new WRDA program focused on resilience will help ensure that the oceans can continue to provide us all we ask of them. The millions of Americans and coastal communities that rely on healthy oceans will all certainly benefit from this positive outcome.