WASHINGTON - Legislation aimed at restoring 1 million acres of fish and wildlife habitat in the Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries over the next decade is moving swiftly through Congress and toward expected approval by President Clinton.
The bill, sponsored by Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, won House approval by voice vote late Tuesday after a similar measure had been passed by the Senate. A final version is expected to be sent soon to Clinton, who has signaled that he would sign it.
The Estuary Restoration Act calls for $200 million in federal spending over the next five years on public-private partnerships to help preserve and restore water quality, water supply, habitat and fisheries. The money must be appropriated as part of the annual budget process before it becomes available.
Environmental advocates hailed passage of the bill as an important step - the first time Congress has moved beyond dealing with pollution to recognizing the value of restoring habitats, such as oyster reefs and bay grasses.
"Restoring habitat is the best way to bring back many important species," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Early restoration efforts are already showing significant returns and have convinced Congress that substantial support for restoration is essential."
Estuaries are shallow bodies of water where fresh and salt water mix, providing a rich environment for sea life. But from Maryland to Louisiana to San Francisco, such waters have been severely degraded over decades, threatening the environmental and economic health of their regions.
"If we want to bring estuaries back to health, we need to commit the time money and creativity necessary to restore the vital organs that make estuaries live and breathe," Gilchrest told the House. "We know how to do it. Now let us roll up our sleeves, put on our boots, and get to work."