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Public Statements

Water Resources Development Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, through the Chair, I will tell the distinguished chairman that I, with great enthusiasm, intend to offer my amendment. I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will support it.

You should support it if you are from a coastal State because the coastal problems that coastal States face are so often overlooked. If you are not from a coastal State but you visit coastal States to go to the beach, if you like to eat fish or, frankly, if you like imported products that come through our coastal ports, you too have an interest in this legislation. I hope you will support it.

Finally, this is a piece of legislation that was agreed to before by this body in the form of the RESTORE Act. In the RESTORE Act, we literally sent billions of dollars to our colleagues along the Gulf States for remediation, repair, and economic reconstruction after the two disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the explosion of the oil well.

Those two disasters. So for reasons that don't merit further discussion here today, that part of the agreement was left unaccomplished.

Whether you are from a coastal State or whether you enjoy coastal products or visits, I would urge my colleagues, for the sake of the Senate being a place in which a bargain once struck is honored, that we owe a vote strongly in support of the authorization--and this is only an authorization, no funding whatsoever--of a national endowment for the oceans that will allow coastal and Great Lakes States to at least be able to compete for funding to be obtained later through existing structures--no new bureaucracies--so we can do what we need to do to protect our coastal economies.

I thank the chairman.

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Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, while the chairman goes about the parliamentary task of organizing a sufficient second on the national endowment bill, I do wish to describe some of the changes our coastal and Great Lakes States are seeing and need to deal with.

Probably the most obvious of all are the storms we have been seeing--the unprecedented and extreme storms we have been seeing--along our coasts. Whether it was Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, we have seen unprecedented damage done at the merger of land and sea, where driven by these powerful storms the sea can wreak such havoc on the land. But it goes well beyond the damage of extreme storms. If we go out into the Gulf of Maine, we can see the cod catch, which is a historic fishery going back centuries, has now collapsed to the point where the Draconian measures that must be applied to that fishery actually risk extinguishing the fishing industry for cod in some of our Northeastern States.

We can move down the coast to the Carolinas, where highway departments are raising the bridges out to the Outer Banks in order to prepare for higher seas and stronger storm surges. We can go further south, to the Florida coast, where in some parts of that ocean--the Caribbean ocean nearby--as little as 10 percent of the coral remains alive. That is actually a pretty big industry for Florida. I think they do 15 million scuba dives a year for recreational purposes--15 million scuba dives--which are not just economically valuable for the dive boat owners and operators but for the people who travel, who have meals and who stay in hotels and buy equipment. They are not going to come to do scuba diving there as much if the famous Caribbean reefs and coral reefs off of Florida continue to die at the rate they are.

We can go all the way across the country to the West Coast, where we see the oyster fisheries in Washington and Oregon threatened by the acidification of the oceans. There have been oyster hatcheries that have had massive die-offs within the hatchery when acidified water from the sea welled up and came into the intakes of these, in many cases, multigenerational family operations and were too acidic to allow the larval oysters to develop their shells, resulting in massive die-offs and economic loss.

I can tell two stories about my home State of Rhode Island that are very current. In Rhode Island, the biggest storm we have seen, worse even than Superstorm Sandy in recent decades, was the famous hurricane of 1938, which did immense damage along our shoreline at a time when our shoreline was far less developed than it is now. Between the 1930s, when that hurricane took place, and now, the sea level at the Newport tide gauge in Newport, RI, has actually climbed 10 inches. So when the next hurricane of 1938 comes--or perhaps even a bigger one, as our current experience of storms would seem to suggest is possible--it will be driving a higher ocean against the shore and probably not just 10 inches higher, because a storm surge will stack that 10-inch increase as it crashes against our Rhode Island shores, and that can be a game changer.

States such as Rhode Island have to do a lot of work to reconfigure where the so-called velocity zones are, where it is safe to build or not safe to build, what is actually now vulnerable in a 100-year flood or a 500-year flood as things change along our coasts. That is something that is a little hard to debate. It is actually a measurement. It is a measurement of 10 inches on a tide gauge. This is not some theory. This is what has happened. That water lying out there 10 inches higher is a terrific risk to our State and something we have to prepare for. Given the way State budgets are, we would like to be able to compete, once we have found some Federal funding, for the ability to figure things out so investors and people living along coastal communities can have a solid and fact-based appreciation of what the risks are to them from this worsening condition of stronger storms and higher measured sea levels.

Another Rhode Island-specific example is the winter flounder. The winter flounder is a major catch species in Narragansett Bay--or at least it was. We can go back to the earliest Native American settlements and find winter flounder bones around the settlements. For many years the winter flounder was the biggest catch in Narragansett Bay. I know a certain amount about it because when my wife did her Ph.D. thesis, she studied the winter flounder in Narragansett Bay and what was happening to it and how its life cycle interacted with another bay creature called the sand shrimp--or the Crangon septemspinosa, which is the technical name. In the time between when she wrote her thesis and now, the catch of winter flounder in Narragansett Bay has crashed more than 90 percent. It is no longer an active direct fishery in Narragansett Bay.

I can remember not that many years ago, it doesn't seem, driving over the Jamestown Bridge or the Newport Bridge or the Bristol Bridge and looking down and seeing trawlers working the upper bay trawling for winter flounder. We don't see that any longer because that fishery has crashed.

It has crashed for two reasons. One is the bay is warmer in the winter. I am having a dispute with PolitiFact right now, but I stand by my assertion it is 4 degrees warmer in the winter. They think it is more like 3 degrees warmer in the winter than it was 30 years ago. Four degrees in water temperature may not seem like much to us humans, but we don't live in that environment. If that is your environment, 4 degrees sends a signal to certain species they don't belong there any longer and to move to cooler waters.

The other thing it has done is it has allowed this other bay creature, the sand shrimp, to move in earlier to the bay when the larval winter flounders are still small enough to be eaten by the sand shrimp. It used to be the sand shrimp would come in and they would feed on the larval winter flounders, but enough of them would get big enough soon enough that they got too big to eat for the sand shrimp. In fact, as they got bigger, they would turn around and eat the sand shrimp. That was the cycle of life. Now the sand shrimp come in earlier. There are fewer winter flounder because of the temperature, and because they are getting in earlier, it is a much more dangerous environment because the larval winter flounder are smaller and remain prey longer. So for all those reasons, there goes what once was a very key fishery.

These are just individual examples. Every coastal State, every Great Lakes State could come and have their Senator give the same speech with at least two examples of things that are changing and making a dramatic difference in the coasts. The phrase I use is: The faster you drive, the better your headlights need to be. These changes are coming fast. Things that used to happen across centuries are happening in decades; things that used to happen over decades are happening in years. We need to have better headlights as we see these changes coming at us, and the headlights are the science, the research, the information, and the ability to do this kind of work.

I hope my colleagues, on the merits, will support my amendment. I hope even if they do not particularly care, even if they are from an inland State and don't have a great interest, that simply in the interest of the spirit of the Senate they will respect an agreement once it has been reached and will make an effort to make sure agreements, when struck, aren't broken and that I will get my partisan support.

With that, I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

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Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President and colleagues, if I could have my colleagues' attention for a moment, I would appreciate it. This is a measure that this body has voted on before in a strong bipartisan vote. This was part of the RESTORE Act, which was a part of the highway bill.

For reasons that don't merit further discussion now, this piece of it fell out of the bargain that had been reached at the last minute in conference.

I hope this will be a bipartisan vote with support on both sides. If you supported the RESTORE Act, you have already supported this bill. If you believe that deals should be deals in the Senate, then you should support this bill. For all of us in coastal States who are facing very unique pressures, it is very important that we as a body support this bill.

It does not create a single extra bureaucracy or person. It works within the existing government, and it adds no funding. I am going to have to work with all of you to find funding for it later and within our existing budget constraints.

This is just the authorization. Please give me a strong bipartisan vote.

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