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Water: Estuaries and Coastal Watersheds

About the National Estuary Program


What is the National Estuary Program?

The National Estuary Program was established in 1987 by amendments to the Clean Water Act to identify, restore, and protect nationally significant estuaries of the United States. [View the authorizing legislation. Read about the program's 10th Anniversary.]Unlike traditional regulatory approaches to environmental protection, the NEP targets a broad range of issues and engages local communities in the process. The program focuses not just on improving water quality in an estuary, but on maintaining the integrity of the whole system -- its chemical, physical, and biological properties, as well as its economic, recreational, and aesthetic values.

The National Estuary Program is designed to encourage local communities to take responsibility for managing their own estuaries. Each NEP is made up of representatives from federal, state and local government agencies responsible for managing the estuary's resources, as well as members of the community -- citizens, business leaders, educators, and researchers. These stakeholders work together to identify problems in the estuary, develop specific actions to address those problems, and create and implement a formal management plan to restore and protect the estuary.

Twenty-eight estuary programs are currently working to safeguard the health of some of our Nation's most important coastal waters.

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How Does the National Estuary Program Work to Protect Estuaries?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the National Estuary Program, but program decisions and activities are carried out by committees of local government officials, private citizens, and representatives from other federal agencies, academic institutions, industry, and estuary user-groups. Estuaries are selected for inclusion in the NEP through a nomination process. Nominations must be submitted to EPA during designated nomination periods by the Governor(s) of the state(s) where the estuary is located.

Once selected for inclusion in the national program, each NEP must create decision-making committees made up of relevant stakeholders to identify and prioritize the problems in the estuary. Most NEPs choose a management framework that includes a Management Committee to oversee routine operation of the program; a Policy Committee made up of high-level representatives from federal, state, and local government agencies; a Technical Advisory Committee to guide technical decisions; and a Citizens Advisory Committee to represent the interests of estuary user-groups and the public. Together, the committees develop a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) for protecting the estuary and its resources. [See a more detailed explaination of NEP organizational structures.]

The objective of each NEP is to create and implement a CCMP that addresses the whole range of environmental problems facing the estuary, as well as the economic and social values of the estuary.  By providing grants and technical assistance, EPA helps state and local governments achieve these goals. EPA also shares "lessons learned" among all the individual estuary programs as well as other coastal communities. [See the Cookbook of Innovations in Coastal Protection (PDF) (183 pp, 1MB, About PDF) and NEP Success Stories.]

To learn how the various Estuary Programs are dealing with specific environmental problems, see Challenges and Approaches.

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Why Isn't the Chesapeake Bay in the National Estuary Program?

The Chesapeake Bay is protected under its own federally mandated program, separate but related to the National Estuary Program. In fact, the approach and methods of the National Estuary Program developed from the foundation laid by earlier efforts to protect the largest estuary in the United States -- the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake was the first estuary in the United States to be targeted for restoration and protection. In 1983 the Governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, and the EPA Administrator signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement committing their states and the District of Columbia to prepare plans for protecting and improving water quality and living resources in the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Program Exit EPA Disclaimer evolved as the institutional mechanism to restore the Bay and meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Agreements. The Program guides and coordinates multi-state and multi-agency activities.

The Chesapeake Bay Program raised awareness of the need to establish federal-state partnerships to protect estuaries threatened by pollution, development, and overuse. The National Estuary Program was established in response to the recognition of a need to protect not just the Chesapeake Bay, but many other estuaries throughout the country.

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