The National Estuary Program (NEP) is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) place-based program to protect and restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance.
Currently, 28 estuaries located along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts and in Puerto Rico are designated as estuaries of national significance. Each NEP focuses within a study area that includes the estuary and surrounding watershed. The NEP is a non-regulatory program established by Congress and was authorized by section 320 of the Clean Water Act in 1987.
Now, on July 26, 2022, the EPA announced an unprecedented investment of $132 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law over the next five years for important work to protect and restore estuaries of national significance.
“The historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invested $132 million in the National Estuary Program, on the front line of efforts to confront the climate impacts of coastal flooding, extreme weather events, and sea level rise,” said Rich Innes, Senior Policy Director for the Association of National Estuary Programs. “Guidance being released by the EPA will assure that these funds are invested wisely in communities most in need, and in ways that will improve people’s health and safety and increase climate resilience along our coasts.”
The money will fund projects to address climate resilience, prioritize equity, and manage other key water quality and habitat challenges across 28 estuaries along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts and in Puerto Rico.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan highlighted the historic investment during a visit to Caño Martín Peña tidal channel in the San Juan Bay Estuary system as part of his Journey to Justice tour visit to Puerto Rico.
“I’m engaging directly with communities who will benefit from the work we will do thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the message is clear – it’s about time,” said Regan. “Communities have been waiting for far too long. This funding is an important investment in equity, clean water and resilience for some of our most treasured water resources.”
Since 1987, NEP has funded projects that restore water quality and ecological integrity across 28 estuaries of national significance. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding will accelerate work on Comprehensive Conservation Management Plans, which are structured frameworks for protecting and restoring estuary resources and meeting water quality needs.
“Scientists say that we can still recover Puget Sound, but only if we act boldly now,” said Laura Blackmore, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Partnership.
“Funding is the primary barrier between us and more food for orcas, clean and sufficient water for people and fish, sustainable working lands, and harvestable shellfish. The resources available through the BIL will contribute materially to funding our Action Agenda and the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan,” she explained.
Additionally, NEPs have been at the forefront of addressing climate impacts and environmental justice disparities in their watersheds. The National Estuary Program is part of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits from certain Federal investments to underserved communities.
“The devastation caused by hurricanes Maria and Irma to our island home of Puerto Rico is difficult to imagine for those who were not here to experience it,” said Brenda Torres, Executive Director of the San Juan Bay National Estuary Program. “Funding that will flow to San Juan Bay from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will empower us to utilize nature-based solutions and green infrastructure to rebuild in a sustainable and resilient way.”
This announcement included guidance for NEPs on how EPA will administer program funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The guidance provides key information, including equity strategies, reporting requirements, and flexibility to the NEPs to address the priorities in their watersheds that are defined by local, city, state, federal, private and non-profit stakeholders.
EPA expects NEPs to accelerate Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan implementation, develop strategies and practices that enable these program areas to be resilient and adapt to changing climate conditions, and make investments that ensure water quality and habitat benefits of this program are realized by disadvantaged communities.
“The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and its Management Conference are acutely aware of the vulnerability of coastal ecosystems and the human community to the impacts of a rapidly changing climate, particularly in low-lying, underserved neighborhoods and communities of color,” said Roberta Swann, Executive Director of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP).
“Funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will enable MBNEP to partner with state, federal, and local entities to help these communities utilize better environmental management practices to build resilience for the challenges ahead,” she added.
The NEPs are located in a variety of institutional settings, including state and local agencies, universities and individual nonprofits. In overseeing and managing the national program, EPA provides annual funding, national guidance, and technical assistance to the local NEPs. The 28 NEPs develop and implement Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans (CCMPs), which are long-term plans that contain actions to address water quality and living resource challenges and priorities. The NEP challenges and priorities are defined by local, city, state, federal, private, and non-profit stakeholders.
“This guidance is a major step toward Santa Monica Bay realizing on the ground protections from the very real impacts of a changing climate, including sea level rise,” said Tom Ford, Chair of the Association of National Estuary Programs, Director of the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program, and CEO of The Bay Foundation. “Funding from the BIL will enable our 28 National Estuary Programs to accelerate efforts to preserve and improve the health of our iconic coastal waters, especially in underserved communities.”
Each NEP has a Management Conference (MC) that consists of diverse stakeholders and uses a collaborative, consensus-building approach to implement the CCMP. Moreover, each MC ensures that the CCMP is uniquely tailored to the local environmental conditions and is based on local input, thereby supporting local priorities.