Oyster restoration in Maryland, which has been beset by disputes and delays the last two years, appears headed for further delays. Lack of federal funds will halt oyster restoration work underway in Maryland’s Tred Avon River, at least for now. (Sean Fritzges/U.S. Army)

Despite pleas and pressure from the state’s congressional delegation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers left funding for oyster restoration out of its Civil Works work plan for the current fiscal year, which ends Oct. 1. That decision, disclosed Monday, means the Corps’ Baltimore District will have to shelve plans to complete the construction of reefs in the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore — at least for now.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both D-MD, expressed disappointment, noting that funding was needed to continue the large-scale restoration project under way in the Tred Avon. A Cardin spokesman said his office has requested an immediate meeting with Corps leaders to get an explanation.

Cardin had said in April that he was “pretty confident” that the Corps would provide at least some funding for oyster restoration in its Civil Works work plan, even though the budget passed by Congress in March did not specifically allocate any money for such work.

Cardin said he had been optimistic because Congress has approved a larger budget for the Corps than the White House had sought, and members of Congress had expressed support for oyster restoration. Congressional rules prohibited earmarking any of that extra funding for oyster restoration, but the budget bill passed in March contained language urging the Corps to explicitly request restoration funding in future years. Cardin said he reinforced that message with senior Corps leaders when he met with them in early April.

Sarah Lazo, spokeswoman for the Baltimore District, said the District had planned to issue a contract this year to construct the 45 acres of reefs needed to complete reef construction in the Tred Avon River, with a cost ranging from $3 million to $5 million. She said the Corps headquarters provides no explanation for why projects are or are not included in the annual work plan.

Chris Judy, shellfish program director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said state officials would work with the Corps to see “what the next steps are.”

“This is exactly what we feared would happen … It’s a real setback,” said Allison Colden, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We have people willing and ready to plant oysters there, and there’s no progress to be made.”

As part of the federal-state Bay restoration effort, Maryland and Virginia each have pledged to rebuild oyster habitat and populations in five of their tributaries by 2025. Maryland has completed one — Harris Creek — with work ongoing in the Tred Avon and Little Choptank rivers. The Little Choptank restoration is state-funded. Late last year, the DNR identified its last two tributaries to undergo restoration work, the St. Mary’s River and Breton Bay.

The lack of federal funding will not only delay completion of oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon, but it could also postpone planning a similar project in Breton Bay, which state officials have said they would like to be federally funded. Federal agreement to take on the project depends on surveys under way to determine if water quality and bottom habitat are sufficiently good to support restoration.

Colden said the loss of funding has its roots in disputes in Maryland over the use of granite and other alternative substrates to build oyster reefs in the Tred Avon and other tributaries.

From the mid-1990s through 2016, the Army Corps regularly received funding to build oyster reefs in the Bay. Cumulatively, the Baltimore District got $29 million, while the Norfolk District of the Corps got $22 million, according to Cardin’s office. But the annual flow of funding ended when then-President Barack Obama requested no money for oyster restoration in the Corps’ fiscal 2017 federal budget.

That cutoff came on the heels of the Hogan administration’s call to halt work in the Tred Avon. A small group of watermen complained in December 2015 to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford about the use of granite in restoration projects there and in Harris Creek. The watermen complained that granite reefs snagged crabbing gear and that improperly constructed granite reefs in Harris Creek were damaging boats.

The watermen also contended that reefs should be made exclusively of oyster shells, arguing that those are the only suitable surface on which spat, or baby oysters, can settle and grow. Scientists say research has shown that oyster spat will do well on other hard surfaces in the water, and monitoring on Harris Creek reefs built three years ago has found a much higher density of new oysters on granite reefs than on those covered with shells.

The Hogan administration lifted its hold on the Tred Avon project in 2016, and work resumed in April 2017, more than a year after it had been interrupted. But the state insisted at the time that the Corps not use any more granite in constructing reefs. So the Corps opted to build remaining reefs with clam shells from a processing plant in New Jersey. But the contractor hired for the project couldn’t get enough shells, and only six of the 10 acres of reefs planned that year were completed.

Last November, Col. Edward Chamberlayne, the Baltimore District’s commander, made a personal appeal to the DNR Oyster Advisory Commission, warning that the Tred Avon project and future federal funding for any other oyster restoration were in jeopardy if the state did not relent in its opposition to use of stone in building reefs. Oyster shell is too scarce and expensive to be used for such large-scale construction projects, Chamberlayne explained, and there aren’t enough clam shells, either.

By that time, delays and construction interruptions had added $133,000 to the $11.4 million estimated overall cost of the Tred Avon project. If forced to continue using only clam shells, Chamberlayne warned, it could take another four to five years to finish the job — and at that rate, he added, Congress and Corps leadership may be unwilling to keep funding oyster restoration.

The Oyster Advisory Commission responded by recommending that the Corps be allowed to use stone to finish the Tred Avon reefs. The four acres of reefs left from last year were completed in March, but 45 more acres of reefs are needed.

After the funding cutoff initiated by the Obama administration, the Trump administration has not included oyster restoration in the Corps budget for fiscal 2018 or 2019. Cardin, Van Hollen and others in Congress had hoped to remedy that by appropriating more money for the Corps and by explicitly supporting oyster restoration.

Angela Sowers, a water resources management specialist with the Corps’ Baltimore District, informed the advisory commission Monday night that the Tred Avon project is on hold for now.

“We found out just today that we are not getting any funding this year to do that work,” she said. “So, the next opportunity will be next year.”

Lazo, the Baltimore District spokeswoman, said District officials have a chance to seek oyster restoration funding in the Corps’ fiscal 2019 work plan, assuming Congress can come together to pass a budget for that year. Army Corps Headquarters is required to annually submit a Work Plan to Congress after a budget passes. Working with the Office of Management and Budget, Corps leaders determine how to spend discretionary funds not specifically designed for projects listed in the budget.

UPDATE: DNR Secretary Mark Belton issued a statement through a spokesman saying, ""We are greatly disappointed that the federal administration failed to support critical funding for Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration. As a member of the federal and state partnership, Maryland relied on funding and support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue our work. 

"While this will certainly impact ongoing and future oyster restoration activities and efforts in the Bay," Belton added, "the Hogan administration remains committed to Maryland's watershed goals. We will contact our congressional leaders to ensure that adequate federal funding is available for this important ecological and environmental priority."