Bay Journal

Some worry support for Bay efforts may lag in new Congress

Inability to pass legislation last fall puts budget in hands of less supportive lawmakers

  • By Karl Blankenship on January 01, 2011
His feathers keeping him warm amid the falling snow, a great blue heron is the picture of patience as he waits for more than an hour for something to swim by a crack in the ice along the Blackwater River. Recently issued strategies to support wildlife populations may be in danger.  (Dave Harp)

At the end of last September, federal agencies were touting a federal Bay action plan that called for a record $491 million in spending on a host of Chesapeake activities this year.

And just a few months ago, many Bay advocates were still hopeful Congress would pass legislation that would strengthen federal authority over the Bay cleanup and pledge to provide billions of dollars more to control pollution from stormwater and other sources of pollution in future years.

Ultimately, Congress failed to pass any Bay legislation and has not yet passed final appropriations for 2011. Instead of new authority or more money, budget cuts and oversight hearings on existing regulations are more likely.

"It's a little bit scary what could be going on in Congress," said Rick Parrish, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "It is clearly going to be hard to get additional money and certainly hard to get any additional authority."

A bill sponsored by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, and championed by many Bay advocates, was melded into a larger package of land and water conservation measures in December. The measure, called the America's Great Outdoors Act, failed to pass in the waning days of Congress despite a last-minute push.

Another Bay measure-introduced by Reps. Tim Holden, D-PA, and Bob Goodlatte, R-VA,-that would have given the U.S. Department of Agriculture a stronger role in overseeing the Bay cleanup also failed. So did a measure-introduced by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-VA,-designed to improve the accountability of the Bay cleanup effort.

Wittman reintroduced his bill, the Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act, on Jan. 20. The bill would better integrate the role of various federal agencies involved in Bay activities,and create more oversight, including establishing an Independent Evaluator to provide an outside analyses of program effectiveness. Identical legislation passed the House last year but was not taken up in the Senate.

Senate efforts focused on Cardin's legislation, which would have clarified the EPA's authority in the Bay TMDL development process and authorized large increases in additional spending to help states and local governments manage big ticket cleanup items, such as controlling stormwater.

"It's a pretty safe bet that he's going to come back with Chesapeake legislation this year," a Cardin aide said. "He has not made a decision yet what form it will take." Some aspects of the original legislation that pertain to development of the TMDL, which was finalized in December, are out-of-date, the aide noted. "So there will be some changes. But you can pretty safely assume there will be a Chesapeake restoration (bill) in the new Congress."

Doug Siglin, a lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it's unlikely any comprehensive Bay bill would pass the new Congress intact, but pieces of the legislation might win approval by being incorporated into other bills.

Rather than expanding its authority, many members of the House of Representatives have voiced support for reining in the EPA's regulatory power and are targeting the agency regulations for review. Some people-including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich-have called for eliminating the agency altogether.

Others want to put the brakes on new regulations, which could include a closer look at the new Bay TMDL. Several members of Congress wrote the EPA to express concerns about the TMDL.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, a freshman Republican from Ohio, was named chairman of the Subcommittee On Water Resources and Environment of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The subcommittee has oversight of programs related to the Clean Water Act.

Gibbs, who is a former president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said that, "as chairman, it will be my responsibility to modernize, reform and cut waste in the programs and agencies we oversee while advocating for common sense policies that ease regulatory burdens."

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently filed suit against the new TMDL, contending in part that it's overly burdensome on farmers.

Among the regulatory burdens identified on the subcommittee's website are the "extremely stringent and expensive total maximum daily loads and water quality standards on states, burdensome

wastewater discharge standards and stormwater requirements for local governments and utilities, and strict regulatory restrictions on farmers, foresters, developers, power generators, water resource managers, mining operations, commercial vessels and others."

The site said the subcommittee would explore "whether EPA's policies are pragmatic, affordable, based on sound science, and that they appropriately consider economic impacts."

Actually revoking regulations could be difficult at it would require the Senate and president to go along. But it could dampen prospects for new efforts that are under way to develop new federal stormwater and animal feedlot regulations to bolster Bay initiatives.

Beyond regulatory issues, the Obama administration's "new era of federal leadership" on the Bay may also be in jeopardy. In response to an executive order on the Bay that was issued by the president in May 2009, federal agencies developed a detailed strategy outlining far reaching strategies to not only clean the Bay, but to restore habitats, protect land, increase public access, support fish and wildlife populations and strengthen science.

Obama's proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, had included $491 million for a host of activities to begin implementing that strategy. That would be a huge increase over the average $291 million a year spent on the Bay from 2007 through 2009.

"The health of the Bay is really relying on Congress," Sally Yozell, a senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration policy adviser said at a press briefing on the action plan in September. "It is contingent on Congress passing this very robust budget for all of us to be successful."

But Congress never passed appropriations for 2011; instead, agencies are operating under a continuing resolution that maintains funding at last year's levels until March.

But with Republicans who gained control of the U.S. House in the November elections saying they're looking to cut federal spending, most observers say the likelihood that the Bay will see significant increases is doubtful. The best case scenario most see is holding spending at 2010 levels.

Because half of the fiscal year will be gone by the time Congress deals with the 2011 budget in March, managing significant reductions would be difficult, as agencies would have only six months left to make the cuts.

"Most of the activities that were associated with implementing the president's executive order were predicated on higher levels of funding," Siglin said. "The question is, what happens if that money doesn't materialize?"

The activities may go forward, he added, but "certainly at a slower pace."

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Karl Blankenship

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