The EPA's Bay cleanup effort would get a boost in President Obama's proposed 2013 budget, but some initiatives, including oyster restoration, would take a financial hit while others, like the Bay's smart buoys, face elimination.
Overall federal funding to support Bay-related activities - which got a cumulative $419.8 million this year - appears likely to decline in the 2013 fiscal year under the administration's plan. But the extent of the decline is hard to determine as some agencies are still examining how the spending plan would affect Bay initiatives.
Further clouding the issue is that ultimate spending decisions are made by Congress, which could make further cuts. And, it's unclear whether it will pass any spending bills before the 2013 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
The administration's budget calls for spending a record $72.6 million to support the EPA's Bay Program Office, which coordinates overall federal Bay restoration efforts and is in charge of implementing the Chesapeake "pollution diet," which requires sharp cuts in the amount of nutrients and sediment runoff to improve Bay water quality.
That's about $15 million more than the Bay Program got this year. The additional funding would be used mainly to increase assistance to states and local governments to implement their nutrient and sediment control practices.
At the same time, the budget would cut other EPA programs that support cleanup efforts. Most significantly, the State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans for water infrastructure improvements, would be reduced to $1.175 billion from $1.468 billion in 2012, a cut of about 20 percent. The fund has been repeatedly targeted in recent years to help absorb sharp EPA budget reductions approved by Congress. As a result, SRF support to the Bay states dropped from $160 million in 2011 to $108 million this year; an additional 20 percent cut would offset the $15 million Bay increase proposed for next year.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it welcomed the additional funds for the Bay Program, but voiced concern about the impact of the SRF cuts. "The SRF provides critical assistance to states and local jurisdictions to reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants and urban and suburban runoff, both critical components of the state plans to achieve the pollution limits," said Doug Siglin, CBF federal affairs director.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office would be especially hard hit by the proposed budget. It was slated to get less than $4 million - half of what it got in 2012, and a third of what it received in 2011.
Among the NOAA programs facing the elimination of funds were its Bay Watershed Education and Training program, which promotes environmental education, and its system of "smart" buoys, which provide real-time information about Bay conditions and water quality. Other efforts could face reductions, including NOAA's oyster restoration efforts and fisheries research program, which has funded much of the studies of blue crabs, oysters and other key Bay species.
The nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy, which has been an advocate of the buoy system, which also marks the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, has launched a campaign to encourage boaters and other buoy-users to contact legislators and urge support for the system. "The smart buoy system is enormously popular with boaters, scientists, educators and citizens throughout the Chesapeake," said Joel Dunn, executive director of the conservancy.
NOAA has provided more than $1 million annually for oyster restoration in recent years. That could be cut by more than half in 2013. The Army Corps of Engineers is still budgeted to get $5 million for oyster restoration in 2013, split between Maryland and Virginia projects. But oyster restoration costs are expected to increase dramatically as the federal Bay strategy emphasizes larger, most costly projects, to restore oyster populations in 20 tributaries. Any loss of funds makes that goal - already considered challenging - even more difficult to achieve.
For other agencies, emphasis placed on the Chesapeake by President Obama's 2009 Bay executive order appeared to maintain funding levels.
The National Park Service would get about $3 million for its Bay activities, about the same as last year, including full funding for a second consecutive year of $2 million for its Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which will also help increase public access to the Bay and its tributaries. Other funding would support its work on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the new Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
But the greatest uncertainty about 2013 funding may involve the amount the U.S. Department of Agriculture has available to help farmers implement conservation measures that control runoff.
Spending levels for most farm programs are set in the Farm Bill, which is approved every five years. This year, the USDA is spending almost $120 million in programs to improve water quality and habitat or conserve lands. Most of that was under farm bill programs, including $50 million from the Chesapeake Watershed Initiative, which expires this year. Budget cutters in Washington have eyed Farm Bill programs for potential savings, and it's unclear whether past funding levels seen for the Bay watershed can be maintained.