Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ocean Policy Task Force

Last Thursday, President Obama's Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force held its only East Coast hearing here in Providence, RI. I was privileged to be invited to serve on an expert panel to kick off the hearings, and was asked to talk specifically about the role of the Federal Government in ecosystem-based management, marine spatial planning, and estuarine habitat restoration.

This is important stuff, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to host it in Rhode Island.

I encourage you all to check out the President's website on this and make comments on-line:

A draft of my remarks to the Task Force follows:

Comments of John Torgan
Narragansett Baykeeper, Save The Bay, Rhode Island
Before the Interagency National Ocean Policy Task Force
September 24th, 2009
Providence Listening Session

Thank you, to the distinguished members of the Task Force, and to President Obama for this extraordinary opportunity to speak to you about these issues at the very heart of our Nation’s environment, economy, culture, history and identity in the world. The ocean and coast, and in particular- our estuaries, rivers, and bays sustain us, enrich our lives, and bind us together with other coastal states and countries in one vast living and dynamic ecosystem. It demands our attention, and needs our help.

I am speaking today for Save The Bay, Southeastern New England’s largest non-profit environmental group, and we are also affiliated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, and are founding members of Restore America’s Estuaries, collectively representing more than a hundred thousand people.

The need for a clear, transparent, and efficient Federal Ocean Policy and inter-agency coordination cannot be overstated. Our present policies are grossly inadequate and under-funded. Without a major commitment to reform, we will be tragically ineffective at protecting and realizing the potential of this nation’s most valuable natural and economic resources-our coastal waters and the rivers that feed them.

Ecosystem-based and adaptive management are really just different terms for sensible, practical coordination and execution of work. Fish and birds do not respect nor adhere to political boundaries and neither does pollution. To be effective, we must provide for regional coordination and scope, while respecting and allowing for regional differences in our approach.

The interim report of the Commission reflects the right points and priorities, and we commend you for an excellent job given the short time and limited resources available. It is now incumbent on us, the stakeholders, to give you the specifics:

The funding need is significant. The stimulus request for estuary restoration projects alone was close to $3 Billion; the amount allocated for this purpose was around $160 Million- a small fraction of the need. But we have shown, again and again, that any investment in habitat restoration and environmental protection strengthens our economy, improves our quality of life, and pays direct dividends back to people by giving them clean water and healthy ecosystems for generations to enjoy.

We must invest in environmental monitoring so we can measure and understand the impacts of our activities- both good and bad.

The way we carry out federally-funded habitat restoration needs to be improved and clarified. Today, even with strong initial federal agency support, the non-profit partners need to work hard every year to raise additional federal funds and non-federal matching funds for each project, resulting in tremendous inefficiency, added expense, and long delays in seeing through vital projects to completion.

We recommend that there be a single, designated lead federal agency for each project that is given the mandate and the funding up-front to see the project through to completion. In particular, NOAA and NRCS seem well-suited to serve as the lead on estuary habitat restoration at the federal level.

Marine spatial planning is an essential tool to achieve effective ecosystem-based management and it deserves our strong support. We must plan not only for conservation of the ocean and coastal resources, but for responsible and sustainable uses. This means fisheries policies that truly conserve and protect species and their habitat and provide for the long-term survival of marine life, fishermen, and fishing communities. Similarly we must plan carefully and comprehensively for sustainable aquaculture, for energy facilities siting, and for safe and secure marine transportation. Rhode Island’s Ocean SAMP is a good template for the nation on this.

To date, we have failed utterly to coordinate these priorities on a regional and national basis. Let me give you an example: Mount Hope Bay and the Taunton River form the northeastern arm of the Narragansett Bay Estuary and have been on the national stage in recent years for the right and the wrong reasons.

First the good news: thanks to the efforts of dedicated residents and good public servants in state and federal agencies over two decades, we were able to secure National Wild and Scenic status for the Taunton, and achieved a landmark settlement with the region’s largest power plant, Brayton Point, whose owners have committed $500 million to install cooling towers to protect Mount Hope Bay winter flounder populations.

Here’s the bad news: This same Bay and river are now severely threatened by a massive Liquefied Natural Gas proposal- Hess’ Weaver’s Cove- which got preliminary approvals from the FERC and Coast Guard, and would dredge up and then dominate the Bay with completely unnecessary gas infrastructure.

There is something obviously wrong with this picture. How can two decades of hard work by thousands of dedicated citizens who have fought for the Taunton and Mount Hope Bay be so easily discounted in order to accommodate a project that appears to benefit only a private company?

Our congressional delegation asked FERC and other agencies to engage in serious regional planning for our energy and environmental future and were denied this sensible request in favor of case-by-case review. This makes no sense at all.

This administration has a golden opportunity to have a real impact on future regulation and policy. These hearings and this task force is a strong step in the right direction. Thank you.

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