Federal Funding Restored for Local Coastal Programs

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

On the same night that the U.S. Senate rejected the latest effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, it also come out forcefully against President Trump’s effort to eliminate funding for key coastal programs.

In its funding bill for the departments of Commerce, Justice and Science, the Senate approved funding for the Coastal Resources Management Council, Sea Grant and the National Estuarine Research Reserves.

Instead of level funding, the Senate increased by $2 million to $76.5 million for the Sea Grant program, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The Committee flatly rejects the [Trump] administration’s proposed elimination of NOAA's Sea Grant program,” the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote in a statement regarding the 2018 funding bill.

The Sea Grant program at the University of Rhode Island is one of 33 nationwide affiliated with universities located near salt water and the Great Lakes. New England has eight Sea Grant offices that focus on coastal hazards, sustainable coastal development, and seafood safety.

Rhode Island Sea Grant receives $2 million from the federal government annually to run its research center at URI’s Bay Campus in Narragansett. Another $1 million is provided by the state and other sources. Its research includes studies of algal blooms, oyster farming, and lobster diseases.

Had Trump’s budget passed, nine positions would have been lost between the URI research center and a laboratory at Roger Williams University in Bristol.

“We are very pleased that the House and Senate have rejected the president’s request to terminate the program,” said Dennis Nixon, director of Rhode Island Sea Grant.

Nixon said Sea Grant has no critics in Congress and that it seen as a valuable institution for advancing timely research.

Trump has been accused of using a broad brush to eliminate any program with the word “grant” in it, to increase defense spending and pay for a border wall with Mexico.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and other Washington insiders maintain that the president’s budget holds little influence on spending and that Congress ultimately decides how money is appropriated. Soon after Trump released his proposed budget in March, Whitehouse downplayed major funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental programs such as Sea Grant.

“Do not be dissuaded or dismayed by the cuts to EPA, the elimination of Sea Grant and other such efforts,” Whitehouse said on March 11. “It is an act of political theater; it is not an act of budgeting.”

Some $85 million was also restored for coastal management grants. The funds pay for about 60 percent of the budget for the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), a state agency based in Wakefield. CRMC is responsible for permitting coastal development such as docks and seawalls. The 46-year-old agency also creates planning guidelines for offshore wind development and climate-change adaptation. Its Ocean Special Area Management Plan is considered one of the most advanced coastal planning documents in the country.

The Narragansett Bay Estuarine Reserve, based on Prudence Island, had its 70 percent of federal funding restored. The research reserve has eight employees and an $850,000 annual budget. It's one of 28 research reserves nationwide. The Rhode Island facility conducts research and monitoring of shoreline habitat. Recent projects have focused on eelgrass and the Asian shore crab.

The U.S. House of Representatives already passed similar funding for these coastal programs. The two budgets are expected to be modified slightly to match before they are fully approved for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

“It’s good news that both the House and Senate are funding the coastal programs,” said Grover Fugate, CRMC's executive director.