A bipartisan measure to help protect working waterfronts against climate change and incompatible development pressures passed the U.S. House Tuesday by a vote of 262-151, with 34 Republicans voting in support.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, D-1st District, would provide $24 million in federal grants and loans to states, which could allocate funding to municipalities, nonprofits and fishing co-ops for projects that preserve or improve working waterfront infrastructure. If approved by the Senate, it also would create a task force at the Commerce Department charged with identifying threats to working waterfronts, including climate change and marketplace pressures.

“Given what we know today about sea level rise and the severity of storms, our working waterfronts are more vulnerable than ever, and we are going to require investment and planning to make sure they are resilient in the future,” Pingree said in an interview. “I’m very exited to see this passing as this is certainly a critical issue for the state of Maine.”

Working waterfronts – from wharves and bait freezers to boatyards and public floats – are under considerable pressure as shorefront property values shoot up and fishing sectors are under strain.

Despite having nearly 3,500 miles of mainland shorefront, Maine has an extremely finite amount of potential working waterfront. In 1989, the Maine State Planning Office calculated that only 175 miles of the coast had the sufficient shelter and water depth to support commercial fishing and other working waterfront activities, and only 21 of those are accessible at low tide. A 2005 Island Institute study found only 62 sites – public or private – with all the ingredients of a prime commercial waterfront: low-tide access, on-site fuel and accessible parking. It’s unknown how many of those sites remain today.

Pingree’s measure was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Robert Wittman of Virginia, whose district includes almost the entirety of that state’s low-lying Chesapeake coast, and Rep. Jenniffer Gonazlez-Colon, the Republican representing Puerto Rico. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, D-2nd District, and nine other Democrats also co-sponsored the measure, which last week was folded into a wider bill, the Coastal and Great Lakes Communities Enhancement Act.

“This legislation will protect communities along our coasts by supporting maritime industry, protecting vital jobs, and preserving our natural resources,” Wittman said via e-mail. “As an original cosponsor of (the measure) I am thrilled to see it pass the House and hope to see it signed into law.”

In a written statement, Golden said the measure would help shore up shipbuilding, lobstering and other heritage industries. “Many of the good-paying jobs we’re fighting to protect here in Maine are tied to our waterfronts,” he said. “It’s just common sense to make sure working waterfronts are healthy, successful and ready for what the future holds.”

Working waterfront interests in Maine also celebrated the move. “Commercial fishermen are having to adapt to changing conditions more so than almost anyone, so anything that can help them prepare for sea level rise or extreme weather is a step in the right direction,” said Monique Coombs, director of marine programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

Nick Battista, senior policy officer at the Island Institute in Rockland, said the measure would be a key policy advance. “Federal agency coordination, as boring as it sounds, is really important to make sure issues like working waterfronts that don’t have a clear home in one particular agency don’t fall through the cracks,” he said.

The grant funds would boost a state effort, the Working Waterfront Access Protection Program, which provides competitive grants via the Land for Maine’s Future Program. Its grants – which average about $200,000 – have helped fishing co-ops, private buying stations and municipalities purchase property and build or replace floats, fueling sites, boat ramps and wharves.

At a hearing, most of the Republicans on the House natural resources committee voted against the measure on the grounds that it was an unnecessary diversion of taxpayer resources “solving a problem that doesn’t exist.” Pingree first introduced the measures in 2009, but they were repeatedly rejected by the House’s then-Republican majority and opposed by Gov. Paul LePage, who flew to Washington in 2017 to testify against them as “another layer of bureaucracy on the states and private enterprise.”

Pingree said she was not impressed by these counterarguments. “In my opinion there are no good arguments against preserving the resilience and availability of our working waterfronts,” she said. “This is not an ideological issue. This is just, ‘How do you shore up this segment of the economy and protect it for the future?’”

The fate of the measure and the wider bill – which also increases funding for tribal coastal projects and the buoys and data collecting operations of the country’s integrated ocean observing systems – now rest with the Senate, which currently has no companion bill in place.

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