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Another Drop In the Ocean’s Bucket

Yesterday, the House and Senate released the final compromise text of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or WRRDA, following months of back-and-forth deliberations over each chamber’s version of the bill. And once again, Congress missed a golden opportunity to secure a major victory for America’s oceans.

Senator Whitehouse meets with locals to observe the workings of a lobster fishing vessel.
Senator Whitehouse meets with locals to observe the workings of a lobster fishing vessel.

Ocean advocates had been bird-dogging the conference proceedings since deliberations began in November because each version of the bill contained a key ocean-related provision. The Senate bill included language authorizing a National Endowment for the Oceans, long sought by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), which would have established the framework for a dedicated stream of revenue to fund ocean and coastal programs and priorities. On the other side of the ledger, the House bill contained an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) that amounts to little more than a partisan attack blocking any funding for implementation of the National Ocean Policy implemented by the Obama administration.

Earlier this month, Politico reported that these provisions were among the last remaining to be reconciled by negotiators from both chambers. And when the dust settled, both Sen. Whitehouse’s National Endowment for the Oceans and Rep. Flores’s amendment on the National Ocean Policy were left on the cutting room floor.

Sen. Whitehouse did win one concession from his House counterparts: inclusion of a provision allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out “projects in the coastal zone to enhance ocean and coastal ecosystem resiliency.” But the opportunity for establishment of a more comprehensive endowment has effectively been lost.

While expressing disappointment that the endowment was not included in the final package, Sen. Whitehouse took some solace in the gains he was able to help make. “While I would have preferred to establish a separate oceans endowment with broader authority, this program within the Army Corps will enable important projects to go forward that might have otherwise languished,” he said.

“While I would have preferred to establish a separate oceans endowment with broader authority, this program within the Army Corps will enable important projects to go forward that might have otherwise languished.” -Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

Many ocean advocates will share Sen. Whitehouse’s glass half-full approach to the outcome of these negotiations. After all, things could have been much worse. Thanks to the leadership of Sen. Whitehouse and his allies in the senior chamber including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and the Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Flores amendment was stripped out of the final package entirely. And the new Army Corps program is a positive step.

But the half-empty outlook in this case reeks of missed opportunity. This is the second time the Senate has passed legislation that would authorize a National Endowment for the Oceans. In 2012 it was included in the Senate’s version of the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act, which directed 80 percent of BP’s Clean Water Act fines from the Deepwater Horizon disaster back to the Gulf Coast states for restoration purposes. And now, for the second time, it has been stripped out in conference.

The dual omissions of the National Endowment for the Oceans and the Flores amendment should not simply be written off as a push. As I wrote back in November after Senate passage of the WRRDA package:

There will surely be pressure to cast aside both [the National Endowment for the Oceans and the Flores amendment] in a standard display of quid pro quo. But a deeper look makes it clear that these two provisions do not simply cancel one another out. The House provision is an expression of politically motivated fears and insecurities while the Senate’s represents a huge step forward for the economic and environmental vitality of our oceans and coasts.

According to a report released last month by the National Ocean Economics Program and the Center for the Blue Economy, shore adjacent counties in the U.S. are home to 37 percent of the jobs in this country, despite representing just 17.5 percent of our land area. Ocean dependent industries directly employ over 2.7 million Americans and contribute more than a quarter trillion dollars to our GDP. By far the largest segment of those economic contributions came from the tourism and recreation sector, which depends on healthy oceans and coasts.

Furthermore, as climate change, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise continue to threaten our coastlines, greater investment will be required to protect some of the most vulnerable and valuable regions of our nation, including major cities from New York to Miami to Houston to San Francisco. Earlier this week, two groups of scientists reported that irreversible destabilization of the west Antarctic ice shelf will lead to rising seas of 10 feet or more in the coming centuries. The maps of what this means for our civilization are simply terrifying.

Programs to enhance coastal resilience like the one Sen. Whitehouse and his allies successfully included in this legislation will help address the looming threat, but they fall far short of what’s truly needed to help turn the tide. If we as a nation are going to get serious about protecting our coastal regions and tackling the effects of climate change, we need bolder action from our leaders, not a room full of petty partisanship and climate change deniers.

The outcome of the conference could have been worse for our oceans and coasts. But it certainly could have been a whole lot better.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Follow us @OceanProgress.