US National Estuary Program

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In 1987, Congress established the US National Estuary Program (US NEP, as an element of the Clean Water Act (CWA), to restore and maintain the integrity of estuaries of national importance. The US NEP was designed to apply an ecosystem-based watershed approach implemented through collaborative partnerships. It complements the Coastal Zone Management Programs led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Twenty eight estuaries participate in the US NEP, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Participating states must develop a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for each estuary in the US NEP Program.


The Clean Water Act (Section 320) directs EPA to develop plans for attaining or maintaining water quality in estuaries by addressing both point and nonpoint sources of pollution. Estuaries included in the U.S. National Estuaries Program are nominated by individual states and use a holistic ecosystem-based approach to address water pollution and related environmental issues of concern to stakeholders. The NEPs are long-term planning and management programs, rather than short term projects. NEPs support rather than replace existing controls on pollution.


The NEP is modeled on the success of the EPA’s Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay programs. In 1987, in the reauthorization of the CWA, Congress selected an initial six estuaries into the NEP. Each NEP receives annual implementation funding. As of 2008, the Program contained 28 estuaries, including the Tampa Bay Estuary.

Key Features

State governors may nominate estuaries for inclusion in the NEP that face significant ecological risks, are of commercial importance, and could benefit from a comprehensive planning and management program. Incentives for nominating an estuary include federal funding, and the option of applying more stringent water quality standards than those provided through the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) system.

Once the EPA approves an estuary to be accepted into the NEP, the first step is to establish a governance structure to serve as the forum for bringing stakeholders together to identify issues and develop the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan. This governance structure, known as the Management Conference, is composed of the NEP Program Office and several stakeholder committees. The Management Conference acts as the organizational umbrella through which each program is implemented. The Conference defines program goals, identifies the causes of the estuary’s environmental problems, and designs actions to protect and restore habitats and living resources. Developing the CCMP is a three to five year process that involves convening stakeholders and reaching consensus on solutions. Stakeholders on committees typically include local governments, affected businesses and industries, public and private institutions, nongovernmental organizations, the general public, and representatives from EPA, other federal agencies, state governments, and interstate or regional agencies. Its committee structure provides the platform for collaborative decision-making and reflects citizen concerns and the problems and characteristics of the watershed. All Management Conferences establish several core committees to carry out their work. These generally include a Policy Committee, a Management Committee, and advisory committees for technical and citizen input. Some NEPs also have committees dealing with finance and local government.

Each NEP has a Program Office that facilitates the work of the committees and is accountable to the Management Conference. The Program Office consists of a director and a small staff of usually three to five professionals. The NEP Program Office facilitates development of the Management Plan, supports its implementation, and produces documents such as annual budgets and work plans. Figure 1 represents a typical organizational structure of an NEP Management Conference. The NEP Program Office can be located in a variety of institutions ranging from state or local agencies to universities or nonprofits.

Figure 1 Typical NEP Management Conference Organizational Structure

EPA’s role is to provide financial and technical assistance, participate in the Management Conference and review program performance.

The Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) serves as the road map for coordinated actions to address priority issues. Since the CCMP is not a regulatory document, NEPs rely upon partners to implement their action plans. The CCMP is based on a scientific characterization of the estuary and is developed and approved by a broad-based coalition of stakeholders. It addresses a wide range of environmental protection issues including water quality, habitat, fish and wildlife, pathogens, land use, and invasive species.


Initially, the Clean Water Act authorized EPA to award grants for 75% of the planning costs for a CCMP. When it came to implementing the CCMP, the States again had insufficient funds. Hence, Congress amended Section 320 of the Clean Water Act in 2000 to provide federal grants of up to 50% for implementation. The Association of National Estuary Programs was established in 1996 as a nonprofit group building support for the NEP at the national level. It serves as a forum for estuary sites to discuss issues and lobby Congress.


The strength of the NEP is attributed to four factors. Its collaborative non-regulatory approach to holistic watershed management encourages stakeholder-based visioning and action, leverages partner resources, applies science to emerging issues, the action strategies to address those issues, and develops programs based on local priorities. Second, the NEP model allocates considerable time to reaching consensus through the use of bylaws and memoranda of agreement as a framework for resolving conflicts. Third, the NEPs promote high levels of commitment by involving stakeholders in committees and keeping them informed of goals and progress. Finally NEPs focus on developing long term finance strategies. For example, by forming strategic alliances and developing new funding sources (e.g., stormwater utilities), the NEP raises an average of $15 for every $1 provided by EPA.

See also

Internal Links

External Links

to Protecting Coastal Water Quality


The main authors of this article are Stephen Bloye Olsen and Glenn Ricci
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Stephen Bloye Olsen; Glenn Ricci; (2021): US National Estuary Program. Available from [accessed on 22-06-2024]