Water and Ocean Policy (1/28/13)

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Clean water is a valuable natural resource that contributes to the health of the ecosystem, agriculture, and population. Congress has held hearings and worked on legislation that regulates navigable waters, drinking water, wetland preservation, wastewater treatment, vitality of the Great Lakes, and the problems with increasing water demand. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), work to protect U.S. water resources.

Oceans cover about 71% of Earth's surface and are an integral part of many Earth systems, including climate and weather. The oceans also contain most of Earth's biomass, with 80% of all known phyla found only in the oceans. Advances in research capabilities have led to improved understanding of marine and coastal systems, however, many are concerned that new technology has not increased enough to keep pace with our exploration needs. Oceans have recently received congressional attention for their ecological preservation, scientific value, and potential resources. This section covers all ocean and water policy, including policy relate to the Law of the Sea and the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Additional information on the OCS can also be found on AGI’s energy policy page.

Recent Action


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Previous Action

U.S., Canada sign Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (09/12)
Canada and the U.S. signed an amended version of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on September 7, 2012. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, first signed in 1972 and last amended in 1987, is a commitment by both nations to restore and maintain the Great Lakes which contain 21 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

New requirements address the nearshore environment, threats from invasive species such as the Asian carp, habitat degradation and climate change and the amendments support continued work on existing threats to people's health and the environment such as harmful algae, toxic chemicals, and discharges from vessels.

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Clean Water
Two major pieces of legislation regulate the nation's waters: the Clean Water Act (CWA) governs navigable waters including lakes, rivers, aquifers, and coastal areas and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) governs the nation's public drinking water supply. Congress has been unable to reauthorize the CWA in its entirety, but continues to appropriate funds for its implementation while debating several issues, such as wetland preservation and local wastewater treatment. The SDWA authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national drinking water standards to protect against both naturally occurring and anthropogenic contaminants. EPA is currently investigating several specific health risks including: arsenic, radon, microbial contaminants, and the byproducts of drinking water disinfection. Water use and reuse, conservation and efficiency, and rural infrastructure are also major concerns. In June 2011, the EPA partnered with the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and the White House Domestic Policy Council to form the Urban Waters Federal Partnership.  Federal agencies will work with local communities to protect and preserve water quality and the surrounding habitat, increase public access to water, and educate communities on water quality.

The USGS implemented the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program in 1991 to develop long-term consistent and comparable information on streams, rivers, ground water, and aquatic systems to help with decisions related to water-quality management and policy. In May 2004, the USGS’s National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) presented findings from its first decade of research. The assessments found that contaminants and their effects are controlled by a complex set of both human and naturally induced factors such as land use, chemical use, urbanization, geology, and hydrology. NAWQA activities during the second decade (2001-2012) focus in large part on national and regional assessments, including continuing national-synthesis assessments of information on pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nutrients, selected trace elements, and aquatic ecology, studies on five national priority topics, and regional assessments of water-quality and trends in surface water and principal aquifers. The NAWQA released a report in 2012 detailing groundwater quality trends for 1998-2010. The report indicated that concentrations of nitrate, chloride and other dissolved solids have increased at most sampled sites since the 1990s.

With long-term aridity facing much of the nation, particularly the Western states, water resource issues are becoming a growing concern for Congress. In April 2011, the Bureau of Reclamation released their report titled Climate Change and Water which was required in section 9503(c) of the SECURE Water Act of 2009 in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act (PL 111-11). The report indicates a reduction in flow in major western river basins by as much as 20 percent by the end of the century due to climate change. According to the National Climatic Data Center’s State of the Climate: National Overview Annual 2012 report, 60 percent of the U.S. was experiencing drought conditions in July 2012 and by August 2012, 24.1 percent of the nation was classified in the most severe drought categories. These dry conditions have led to low municipal, industrial, commercial, and agricultural water supplies. Concerns about maintaining adequate water supplies across the nation have prompted Congress to schedule a number of hearings to consider steps to mitigate the current problem and to prepare for future water demands. In November 2012, the U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement outlining the management plans for the Colorado River Basin resources through 2017. The agreement aims to prepare both countries for future drought conditions by improving water storage, conservation, and infrastructure.

Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are an extremely valuable natural resource for the United States. Constituting one-fifth of the global supply of fresh water, they provide over 35 million Americans with drinking water, food, transportation, and recreation. However, the resources of the Great Lakes are threatened by a variety of environmental problems, including pollution, toxins, invasive species, erosion, habitat loss, and unsustainable development. To address some of these problems, nine federal agencies and several states have implemented nearly 200 environmental restoration programs in the Great Lakes region since the 1970s.

In 2003, the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force requested a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study to identify, evaluate, and assess federal and state restoration programs in the Great Lakes. GAO found that 148 federal and 51 state programs were funding environmental restoration in the area, causing them to recommend "a coordinated strategic plan and monitoring system... to achieve restoration goals."

In response, President Bush issued an executive order in May 2004 that called for the establishment of a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to improve coordination and communication of Great Lakes restoration projects. Chaired by the EPA Administrator, the task force includes the heads of the Departments of State, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, the Army, Homeland Security, and the Council on Environmental Quality. A Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy (GLRCS) team released a report in December 2005.

Since the 1972 signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the U.S. and Canada have shared the responsibility for restoration and maintenance of the Great Lakes. In September 2012, both countries signed an amended version of the agreement to address the nearshore environment, threats from invasive species, habitat degradation, climate change, and health and environmental hazards such as harmful algae, toxic chemicals, and discharges from vessels.

Wetlands and Coastal Resources
Wetlands are complex ecosystems that are among some of the nation's most valuable resources. They serve several ecological functions including improving water quality, controlling floods, diminishing droughts, and stabilizing shorelines. Home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals, they not only serve the interests of natural ecosystems, but also serve hazard management, economic, and commercial interests, such as coastal drilling for oil and natural gas. Prior to the mid-1970's, wetlands were regularly drained and filled in for development projects, leading to a loss of about half of the wetlands in the contiguous United States since the 1600's. In the 1970's, however, wetlands were recognized as a resource of ecological value, and concern about their loss led to federal efforts to protect them on both public and private lands.

Federal efforts to protect and preserve coastal barriers from major development have similarly gathered momentum over the past few decades. Coastal barriers, such as barrier islands and sand spits, play an important ecological role by protecting human communities and ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, from storm damage. In addition to being the first line of defense against major storms, coastal barriers provide habitat for valuable seafood and wildlife species and are often popular recreation areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing coastal barriers that are protected under the Coastal Barriers Resources Act (S. 1869).

President Bush declared a new policy in April 2004 to increase total wetland area in the United States by 1 million acres and to increase protection of an additional 2 million acres during the next five years. This policy will largely be implemented through a Natural Resources Conservation Service program in which farmers receive grants when they set aside wetlands on their property, and through an increase of Wetlands Reserve Program funding from $15 million in 2004 to a proposed $455 million in 2008. The actual funding levels are anticipated to be outlined in a new Farm Bill in 2009. The Bush administration also advocates the mitigation bank approach, which allows developers to fill in wetlands if they pay for creation of new wetlands elsewhere. Some concerns have been raised by organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation about the higher quality of wetlands that have already been lost compared to those that will be constructed.

Wetlands are otherwise primarily regulated by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) programs under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1977. Section 404 seeks to protect wetlands and adjacent waterways though permitting of dredged or fill materials that might cause environmental degradation. It does not regulate other acts, such as those that drain or flood wetlands. Many environmentalists disagree with the use of section 404 as the primary means for wetland protection, often noting that the program is weak because it is not comprehensive and not created specifically for wetland protection. Landowners generally feel they should be allowed to alter their land as they see fit, and taking away that right through wetland designation decreases the value of their property.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released their report Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004-2009 to detail the significant but decreasing loss of U.S. wetlands.

Oceans Policy
The Marine Resources and Engineering Development Act of 1966 was the first legislation to define a national ocean policy. The law created a commission -- commonly referred to as the Stratton Commission after its chairman Dr. Julius Stratton -- that examined development, utilization, and preservation of the marine environment. In 1969, the Stratton Commission submitted a report to Congress entitled Our Nation and the Sea with recommendations that led to the creation of the National Sea Grant College Programs, the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  In the late 1980s the United States recognized the need to more clearly define ocean policy, but legislation to create an oceans commission repeatedly failed to pass Congress.  Instead, an independent group of experts created the Pew Oceans Commission in 2000 to lead a national dialogue on policies to restore and protect marine resources.  At the same time a rise in the nation's population living near coasts, increased development of ocean resources, and an increasingly complex legal framework associated with environmental threats led Congress to pass the Oceans Act of 2000.  The legislation established the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy with the purpose of issuing findings and recommendations to the President and Congress on national ocean policy issues ranging from stewardship, to environmental protection, governance, and research.

The Oceans Act of 2000 required the Bush Administration to submit an implementation plan to Congress in response to the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.  This resulted in President Bush’s U.S. Ocean Action Plan and the creation of a Committee on Ocean Policy within the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.  The Committee on Ocean Policy established an ocean governance structure composed of subsidiary bodies to coordinate existing management and help oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

The Pew Ocean Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy joined forces in early 2005 establishing the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.  At the request of Congress, the joint commission issued a report in June 2006 entitled “From Sea to Shining Sea: Priorities for Ocean Policy Reform — A Report to the United States Senate.”  The 10 prioritized actions needed to implement the commissions’ recommendations listed in the report are:

   1. Adopt a statement of national ocean policy;
   2. Pass an organic act to establish NOAA in law and work with the Administration to identify and act upon opportunities to improve federal agency coordination on ocean and coastal issues;
   3. Foster ecosystem-based regional governance;
   4. Reauthorize an improved Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act;
   5. Enact legislation to support innovation and competition in ocean related research and education consistent with key initiatives in the Bush Administration’s Ocean Research Priorities Plan and Implementation Strategy;
   6. Enact legislation to authorize and fund the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) to monitor ocean health;
   7. Accede to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (see background below);
   8. Establish an Ocean Trust Fund, with monetary input generated from outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas revenues, as a dedicated source of funds for improved management and understanding of ocean and coastal resources by federal and state governments;
   9. Increase base funding for core ocean and coastal programs and direct development of an integrated ocean budget; and
  10. Enact ocean and coastal legislation that progressed significantly in the 109th Congress.

In addition, the joint commission reported that the four highest priority areas for funding are: ocean governance and coastal management; ocean science and research; monitoring, observing, and mapping the oceans; and education and outreach.

Congress has continued to consider ocean policy and management recommendations of the joint commission and to monitor the progress on implementing and responding to those recommendations.  Improvements continue to be made in ocean policy ranging from changes in the organization and administrative structure of ocean research and governance, to specific improvements to ocean and coastal mapping and observation.

The National Sea Grant College Programs Amendment Act of 2008 (H.R. 5618) was signed by President Bush in October 2008. The bill aims to provide grants and contracts to support education, research, training, and management of the oceans, coastal areas, and major lakes. The research programs cover a variety of themes from creating models of the oceans, to studying coastal hazards and ecosystems, to working on marine biotechnology. The new amendments stress integrated research, extension services, and regional coordination between the Sea Grant partners.  The partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), states, industry groups, and university-based programs. The Sea Grant Act was last reauthorized in 2002.

In the 110th Congress, the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring (FOARAM) Act of 2007 (H.R. 4174) passed the House in July 2008, but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. During the 111th Congress, the FOARAM Act was reintroduced and passed as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11). The legislation established an interagency research program overseen by NOAA to enhance the understanding of the role of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems, identify marine ecosystem conservation measures, and investigate the socioeconomic impacts of ocean acidification. The Interagency Working Group on Ocean Acidification (IWGOA) released their report titled Strategic Plan for Federal Research and Monitoring of Ocean Acidification in March 2012.

Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, debris washed up along the coasts of Hawaii, Alaska, and the western continental United States. Although some debris was initially feared to be radioactive due to the damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor, no evidence of harmful radioactivity has been found. While Congress debated cutting authorization levels for marine debris research, Japan gave NOAA $5 million to assist in marine debris research.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
With the melting of the arctic ice sheet, there are increasing opportunities for navigation, shipping, exploration and extraction of natural resources near the North Pole. Indeed the potential natural resources are considered so significant that multiple nations are staking claims to large areas of seafloor beneath the ever-changing ice cap. The melting ice has again drawn attention to the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Treaty, which governs activities on, over, and under the world’s oceans and defines the extent of territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones for signatory nations.  According to the treaty, a nation has the rights to the resources in its territorial waters, and sole exploration rights within its Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles off of its coastline. The Exclusive Economic Zone can be extended up to 350 nautical miles if a nation can prove that the area is a continuation of the continental shelf from the nation’s coastline.  In 2007, the Russians claimed a broad swath of the north polar seafloor, including the North Pole, because new research suggested the Russian continental shelf extends through area. The Russians, who have already ratified the treaty, have filed a claim for the area with the United Nations.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea was opened for signature in December 1982. President Reagan refused to accede to the treaty because of objections related to deep seabed mining. After revisions to the deep sea mining provisions President Clinton chose to sign the treaty and requested approval from the Senate.  The Senate has not considered the treaty on the floor.  In May 2007, President Bush expressed his support and urged the Senate to approve of the treaty and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved ratification again in October 2007.  The treaty will likely remain in this limbo until proponents believe they have enough votes to meet the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution. Opponents fear that accepting the treaty will limit U.S. sovereignty over ocean exploration and navigation, while supporters fear the U.S. will lose claims to vital ocean assets if it is not a part of the treaty.

The 112th Congress witnessed continued debate over whether or not the U.S. should ratify the Law of the Sea. Support for ratification was expressed prominently by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

Outer Continental Shelf
Activities on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are of interest to the geoscience community for a variety of reasons. The availability of resources, possibilities for energy production, environmental impacts from all activities, and proximity to highly populated coastlines all play a role in OCS policy. Of all the activities on the OCS, the most visible, and contentious, are those associated with the leasing and development of OCS lands for fossil fuel exploration and development and the collection and distribution of resulting revenues from these leases. Environmental concerns have prompted the establishment of leasing and drilling moratoria that prohibit most OCS production. Last year, due to rising energy costs, President Bush lifted the executive moratorium on OCS development and the 110th Congress allowed their congressional ban to expire. The new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is currently conducting studies to determine the feasibility of developing wind and wave power offshore.

The Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is defined by current law as the submerged lands that stretch between 3 and about 690 geographical miles seaward of the U.S. coastline. Within the first 3 miles of a state's shore, all subsoil and seabed resources are managed by the state. The Gulf of Mexico coasts of Texas and Florida are the exceptions, with state waters extending to about 9 geographical miles. Beyond 690 miles, or 200 nautical miles (nm), the seabed and subsoil are considered to be in international waters. The 200 nm expanse beginning at the shoreline is referred to as a nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The OCS and EEZ are extended if the coastal margin is geologically defined as extending beyond the 200 nm limit. Such extensions can be found off of Alaska, the Atlantic coast, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Where the geological continental margin is narrow, as in the Pacific, federal jurisdiction is limited to within the 200 nm zone.

State jurisdiction over coastal resources was passed and signed into law under the Eisenhower administration, with the Submerged Lands Act of 1953. In the same year of the Submerged Lands Act, Congress and President Eisenhower passed into law the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OSCLA), which grants to the Secretary of the Interior authority over all mineral resources on the OCS.

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy staff; Kimberley Corwin, 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Water and Ocean Policy in the 112th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on January 28, 2013