Leaders from ‘national estuaries’ seek increased funding from Congress

Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, was among six leaders from so-called “national estuaries” who spoke to Congress last week about the need for increased funding.

Laura Blackmore, Puget Sound Partnership

The natural beauty of Puget Sound and its recreational opportunities have attracted people and businesses, including 11 of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies, Laura told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “Puget Sound is also slowly dying. Southern Resident orcas, chinook salmon and steelhead are all listed under the Endangered Species Act. We continue to pollute our waterways and our shellfish beds, and habitat degradation outpaces restoration.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Laura was willing to air Puget Sound’s dirty laundry in the halls of Congress to call attention to the need for federal funding to bolster state and local dollars. I suspect it was somewhat easier to make that plea this year, after the Washington Legislature provided significant money to tackle numerous environmental problems from orcas to oil spills. Laura’s testimony can be heard in the first video on this page, and check out Jeff Rice’s report on state funding in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Will Baker, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Puget Sound is not alone when it comes to environmental degradation. All 28 of our “national estuaries” have been provided federal funding to carry out ecosystem-recovery plans as part of the National Estuary Program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Besides Laura, the five others who spoke about their problems and needs were Preston Cole, secretary of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Dave Pine, chairman of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority board; Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Kristi Trail, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation; and Tom Ford, director of the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program.

Tom Ford, Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program.

One can listen to their oral testimony and read their extended comments, as well as hearing introductory remarks by committee members on the hearing’s website. I’ve also posted the video of the full hearing on this page, followed by the testimony of Baker and Ford.

Last Tuesday — the same day as the hearing discussed here — the full House approved an appropriations package containing increases in many of the programs that will benefit Puget Sound and other waterways.

The House Interior Appropriations Bill includes a $5-million increase — to $33 million — for the Puget Sound Geographic Program. That EPA program provides grants for ecosystem-restoration projects to benefit salmon and other creatures.

If approved, the National Estuary Program would be boosted by $3 million, with each of the 28 estuaries receiving at least $100,000 more than their previous appropriation.

The House budget includes $1.5 million for Puget Sound orca recovery, with the money to be spent on monitoring and research.

The ongoing Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, used to help threatened and endangered salmon populations, would receive $65 million to be shared throughout the Northwest under the spending plan.

Some $30 million was proposed to implement the newly ratified Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S and Canada, with funding for research and salmon hatcheries. Another $25 million was proposed for hatchery and fish-passage activities under the Mitchell Act, which helps compensate for dam losses. In addition, $15 million would go to small communities experiencing fisheries disasters.

Other funding would address forest health, climate change, earthquake preparedness, and tribal conservation programs.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who said he is proud to champion the increased environmental funding, provided a fairly detailed explanation of the spending proposal.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

“This bill continues to make progress on important priorities for our region — like protecting the environment and investing in our natural landscapes, making our communities safer, honoring commitments to Indian country, supporting affordable housing, and bringing broadband to more rural areas,” he said in a news release.

When I spoke to Rep. Kilmer in May at his Washington, D.C., office, he appeared optimistic that increased spending would not only make it through the House but would have a fair chance of success in the Senate. You can read my report in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I wish I could tell you what the Republican-controlled Senate is proposing with respect to environmental funding, but they won’t disclose much until spending “caps” are approved by congressional leaders. Without an agreement on caps, the 2011 Budget Control Act would require cuts to below current levels of spending, despite budget increases in 2018 and 2019.

“Absent a new agreement, the BCA caps will impose deep cuts in 2020 on both defense and NDD (non-defense discretionary) programs,” writes Richard Kogan of the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Moreover, if Congress and the president fail to negotiate a more substantial budget agreement and agree instead only to freeze funding at current levels (and to raise the caps accordingly), the results would still be damaging — particularly for NDD programs.”

Kogan’s article provides a good explanation about the complicated federal budget process and the quandary in which both parties find themselves as a result of the budget-constraint law. Because both parties have their own spending priorities, Kogan anticipates a deal at some point. But we have seen some pretty quirky decisions and non-decisions under the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, when it comes to increased federal funding for the environment, I guess we’ll remain unsure about what might happen until it happens.

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