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What is an Estuary? An estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of water where freshwater from the land measurably dilutes saltwater from the ocean. This mixture of water types creates a unique environment that is critical for the survival of many species of fish, birds, and other wildlife. They provide safe spawning grounds and nurseries for fish and shellfish, ideal resting and refueling places for migratory birds, and habitat for many reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Marshes and other wetlands, which often fringe estuaries, protect marine life and water quality by filtering sediment and pollution from upstream sources. Estuaries also create natural protection to coasts and shorelines from damaging storm waves and floods.
What is the National Estuary Program? The National Estuary Program (NEP) was established in 1987 by amendments to the Clean Water Act to identify, restore and protect estuaries along the coasts of the United States. The NEP was modeled after the Chesapeake Bay Program which was established prior to the 1987 Clean Water Act amendments.
Currently, there are 28 estuaries in the program nationwide with oversight provided by EPA Headquarters' Office of Water. 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.
There are 3 National Estuary Programs in EPA's Mid-Atlantic Region. Each one has a unique set of environmental and socioeconomic conditions and each has in place tailor-made management plans and specific actions leading to the protection and restoration of the estuaries' water quality, habitats and natural resources.