Skip to main content

National Estuary Program

National Estuary Program

The National Estuary Program (NEP) was established in 1987 when amendments to the Clean Water Act provided that the significant estuaries of the United States must be identified, and protected. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , (NOAA) in its publication Where the Rivers Meet the Sea, "An estuary occurs where saltwater from the sea meets and mixes with fresh water from the land." Estuaries are places where fresh and salt water mix. They are known as bays, harbors, sounds, or lagoons, as well. As much as 80% of the fish that are caught for food or for recreation depend on estuaries for all or part of their lives, according to the National Association of Estuary Programs. Because of their vital role in the impact of marine life, estuaries are often referred to as "cradles of the sea." The water bodies of the United States that play close to hearts of Americans and foreign visitors alike are estuariesSan Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay , Puget Sound, and Long Island Sound.

The extensive ecosystem that comprises all estuaries creates a similar balance of characteristics, as well as inherent problems. A continual force of tides and winds mix salt and fresh water constantly. Excessive nutrient pollution and loss of natural habitatsmany due to human manipulationcan upset that mix and create an inhospitable environment for the living organisms that reside there. The estuary is not alone in its environmental home. The surrounding wetlands , rivers, and streams, as well as the land that courses through it and around it are all an integral piece of a whole that affects both humans and wildlife in their struggles for survival. The NOAA points out also that, "Estuaries are among the most biologically productive systems on earth. More than two-thirds of the fish and shellfish commercially harvested in coastal waters spend part or all their lives in estuaries."

As of 2002, the EPA had identified the key issues in managing estuaries, particularly those in the NEP, as well as the challenges they face in their survival. Common to each of the 28 areas named in the NEP are:

  • overenrichment of nutrientsnitrogen and phosphorus are vital to a healthy aquatic system; in excess, they cause or add to fish disease, red or brown tide, algae blooms, and low dissolved oxygen
  • pathogen contaminationviruses, bacteria, and parasites that indicate a health hazard to swimmers, surfers, divers, and seafood consumers
  • toxic chemicalsmetals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals , and pesticides, all particularly threatening to humans who would consume any fish or seafood from the water body
  • alteration of fresh water inflow
  • habitat loss and degradationthe ecological balance of any estuary depends on the health of a habitat for survival
  • decline in the fish and wildlife population.
  • introduction of invasive specieseither by intention or accident, such an addition can upset the balance of the system and create unexpected impacts economically, socially, and ecologically

As a voluntary, community based watershed program, the NEP has not only set as its goal to improve the quality of water in the estuaries. The program has sought to improve the entire ecological systemits chemical, physical, and biological properties, in addition to its economic, recreational, and aesthetic values. As of 2002, there were 102 estuaries in the United States. Only 28 of those have been designated as "nationally significant" and are therefore the focus of the entire effort of restoration and preservation. These 28 estuaries include 42% of the continental United States shoreline, with over half of the population living in the nation's coastal counties.

Since June 1995, the 28 nationally significant estuaries are Albemarle-Pimlico, NC; Barartaria-Terrebone, LA; Barnegat Bay, NJ; Buzzards Bay, MA; Casco Bay, ME; Charlotte Harbor, FL; Corpus Christi, TX; Delaware Estuary Program, DE, PA, NJ; Delaware Inland Bays, DE; Galveston Bay, TX; Indian River Lagoon , FL; Long Island Sound, NY and CT; Lower Columbia River, OR and WA; Maryland Coastal Bay, MD; Massachusetts Bay, MA; Mobile Bay, AL; Morro Bay, CA; Narragansett Bay, RI; New Hampshire Estuaries, NH; New YorkNew Jersey Harbor, NY and NJ; Peconic Bay, NY; Puget Sound, WA; San Francisco Bay, CA; San Juan Bay, Puerto Rico; Santa Monica Bay, CA; Sarasota Bay, FL; Tampa Bay, FL; and, Tillamook Bay, OR. The Chesapeake Bay in Maryland by itself is not specifically included in the NEP but is related to it. The Chesapeake Bay Program is a separate, federallymandated program.

Economic factors as well as environmental concerns play a significant role in the maintenance of estuaries, primarily in estimating their worth. Each year, these particular estuaries account for over $7 billion in revenue from commercial and recreational fishing and related marine industries; $16 billion is generated by the attendant tourism and recreation activities.

The program as it has been established is a descendant of the early environmental programs of the 1970s and 1980s that sought to restore the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bayall of which had become polluted to such an extent that concerns of whether the problems could be reversed were tantamount to the discussions and burgeoning activism that sought to fix them. When Cleveland's Cuyahoga River set fire in 1970 the laughter that was provoked publicly was only to hide a city's, and a nation's horror, that such an event had occurred.

Chesapeake Bay was about to meet a similarly dark fate with out of control pollution, unbridled industrial and private development, and a fishing industry that was dying. In 1983 the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Mayor of Washington, D.C., and the EPA administrator signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement committing their states and the District of Columbia to prepare plans for protecting and improving the water quality and living resources of the bay.

The implementation of the Chesapeake Bay Program, along with the 1965 Water Resources and Planning Act, the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and the 1977 Clean Water Act laid the groundwork for the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plans (CCMP) for the estuaries that had been identified.

The process for developing the CCMP for the national estuaries involves four steps:

  • building a management and decision-making framework
  • scientifically characterizing existing resources and identifying priority problems
  • developing both conventional and innovative solutions to identified problems
  • implementing the management recommendations, with support from public and private sectors

Each local community has a particular stake in maintaining the estuary in its midst. The NEP is designed so that each community takes responsibility for managing it. Representatives from local, state, and federal governmental agencies join together to serve as managers of the estuaries. Local citizens, business leaders, educators, and researchers serve on a volunteer basis, too, and all groups work together to create their individual CCMPs. On the national level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the NEPbut the programs are carried out by the previously mentioned people. Nominations for determining significant estuaries are also handled by the EPA submitted to them by the governors of the states where the estuary is located. It is after an estuary has been named that the committees continue with their participation.

The Association of National Estuary Programs (ANEP) is a trade association that supports the 28 NEP estuaries, and provides for a joint effort in addressing the issues facing citizens and lawmakers. The ANEP has been successful in getting key legislation passed as in the instance of Senate Bill 835, signed by President Clinton; and responsible for committing federal dollars to restore a million acres of estuary habitat, and ensuring the continued survival of the National Estuary Program. The Estuaries and Clean Waters Act of 2000 "authorizes a total of $275 million" until 2005 for matching funds for local restoration projects and also designates an additional $35 million per year until 2004 in support of the NEP. That bill also served to clear up the issue that NEP funds could be used to carry out existing, locally-crafted CCMPs for the 28 NEPs throughout the United States.

In celebration of the NEPs tenth anniversary in 1987, the EPA prepared a "Ten-year perspective" it has posted through it web site. It notes that, "A number of key lessons have been learned over the past 10 years. The NEP has demonstrated that community-based resource management achieves results. Although it takes time to see environmental changes such as improvements in water quality, progress is being made. In order to demonstrate improvements in an estuary, we have seen the importance of NEPs setting measurable environmental goals and indicators." Of the many local programs, EPA noted that, "the NEPs have created innovative management approaches to solve these [of the estuaries] common problems. They have employed alternative on-site wastewater treatment technologies to control nitrogen ; established marina pump-out facilities; provided education and training for owners, installers, and pumpers of septic systems to reduce pathogens; promoted beneficial uses of dredged material to restore and create wetland habitat; installed fish passages to increase spawning; and, helped citizen volunteers remove invasive plant species from public areas."

There are a total of 130 estuaries in the United Statesthe question remains whether or not all of these should also become a part of the NEP. What improvements have been accomplished through the designated 28, however, can serve as focal points for improvements for those not named. Restore America's Estuaries (RES) is an organization dedicated to preserving the coastal integrity through the improvement of all estuaries, including those other then the 28 in the NEP. RES has prepared its document entitled, A National Strategy to Restore Coastal and Estuarine Habitat whose stated purpose it is to "provide a framework for restoring function to coastal and estuarine habitat." As with the ANEP, the work of RES includes professionals and citizensscientists, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and governmental representatives from various agencies and levels.

Communities Actively Restoring Estuaries (C.A.R.E.) as of 2002, is scheduled to work in a three-year, $12 million in partnership with the NOAA's Community-Based Restoration Program to activate "on-the-ground" habitat restoration in 11 major estuaries throughout the United States. The program funds salt marsh restoration, oyster reef restoration, the installation of fishways, shoreline restoration, and other projects.

[Jane E. Spear ]



Texas Water Resources. Precursors of the National Estuary Program. 1995 [cited June 2002]. <>.


Associaation of National Estuary Programs. 2002 [cited July 2002]. <>.

Environmental Protection Agency. The National Estuary Program. [cited July 2002]. <>.

Estuarine Research Federation. [cited July 2002]. <>.

Restore America's Estuaries. [cited July 2002]. <>.


Association of National Estuary Programs, 4505 Carrico Drive, Annandale, VA USA 22003 (703) 333-6150, Fax: (703) 658-5353, , <>

Estuarine Research Foundation, P.O. Box 510, Port Republic, MD USA 20676 (410) 586-0997, Fax: (410) 586-9226, , <>

Restore America's Estuaries, 3801 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 53, Arlington, VA USA 22203 (703) 524-0248, Fax: )703) 524-0287, , <>

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. USA 20460 (202) 260-2090, , <>

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"National Estuary Program." Environmental Encyclopedia. . 20 Jan. 2019 <>.

"National Estuary Program." Environmental Encyclopedia. . (January 20, 2019).

"National Estuary Program." Environmental Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.