Acting four months after the 2003 fiscal year began, Congress in February approved substantially increased funding for many Bay-related activities including oyster restoration, education, watershed grants and the EPA’s Bay Program Office.
But some of those gains could be erased by the 2004 budget proposed by the Bush administration, which — as is typical of most administration budgets — would scrap many of the items added by Congress in favor of its own priorities.
Some worry that environmental cuts proposed in the 2004 spending plan — including reductions in funds for wastewater treatment plant upgrades and smaller-than-expected hikes in farm conservation programs — could hinder Bay cleanup efforts.
Recent estimates suggest it will cost the region about $1 billion a year to reach nutrient reduction goals aimed at restoring the Chesapeake’s water quality.
“The president’s budget is not good for the Bay at a time when we know what we need to do and the science tells us what we have to do, said Robert Ferris, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “They are pulling the legs out from under us.”
In the past, many cuts proposed by administrations are restored by Congress. But with federal deficits predicted to hit record high levels, it remains to be seen whether Congress will be so generous for the 2004 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
For 2003, though, Congress approved record-high spending for many Bay efforts. The EPA’s Bay Program Office would get $22.6 million, a record amount, although that figure includes funding for the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants program. But even if the EPA allots the full $2 million for Small Watershed Grants that was suggested by Congress, it will have an increase of nearly $1 million over 2002 levels.
The EPA’s Bay Program Office is the focal point for coordinating the state-federal cleanup effort. It supports core Bay monitoring and modeling efforts, as well as Bay-related research, public outreach and state restoration activities. The Small Watershed Grants program supports locally based restoration and education efforts by nonprofit groups and communities.
Also, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office will get a record $3.5 million, up from $2.75 million in 2002. The NOAA office is heavily involved with oyster restoration, coordinating Baywide fisheries management, promoting education, researching the impacts of atmospheric deposition and supporting basic toxics research.
NOAA’s blue crab research would also get a boost from $1.5 million in 2002 to $2 million, while support for its Bay-related education programs would increase from $1.2 million to $2 million. In addition, Congress allocated $2 million to NOAA for Bay oyster restoration projects, and also gave $3 million to the Army Corps of Engineers to support its Bay oyster recovery program. Both figures were the same as in 2002.
Funding for the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network will grow from $1.2 million this year to $2 million, while support for the U.S. Forest Service’s Bay related activities will increase from $750,000 to $1 million.
But many of those increases for 2003 could be lost in 2004, under the spending plan proposed by the administration in February.
The Bush budget would give the EPA’s Bay Program Office $20.8 million next year, $100,000 more than the president had originally proposed for 2003, and more than has been proposed in any budget since 1995.
“It is the policy of this administration to preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay,” EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said in a trip to Annapolis after the budget was released. “This money will help strengthen the good work the Bay partners are already doing to help the Bay.”
But the $20.8 million is $1.8 million less than was actually approved this year, mainly because Congress added $2 million to support the popular Small Watershed Grants program, which the Bay Program is required to fund by law. The administration’s budget makes no specific provision for Small Watershed Grants.
“Actually, it’s a decrease,” said Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD. “Instead of a plus, we’ve lost almost $2 million.”
Meanwhile, the budget would cut NOAA’s Bay Office from $3.5 million to $2 million. It would also cut finding for NOAA’s oyster restoration work in Maryland and Virginia from $3 million to $850,000, and eliminate funding for NOAA’s Bay education program. NOAA’s blue crab research and restoration efforts would be cut to $650,000.
Funding for the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network would be reduced to $798,000.
Other budget actions not specifically aimed at the Bay could also hinder the attainment of cleanup goals.
For example, the administration’s proposed budget would cut the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund to $850 million from the $1.35 billion approved for 2003. The fund is a major source of financing for wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Although administrations almost always request less for the fund than Congress ultimately approves, the Bush administration’s 2004 request was $362 million less than its own request for this year.
Under the formula used to divide that money among the states, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia would stand to lose a combined total of $42 million, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“The Chesapeake 2000 agreement is a visionary document for how we are going to clean the Bay we all love,” said CBF President William Baker. “All signatories to that agreement need to achieve their commitments, including the federal government. By cutting funding for sewage treatment plant upgrades, President Bush’s budget short changes the Bay and our communities. Now, we must work with Congress to restore funding to reduce pollution.”
In addition, the CBF said the reduction could cost New York $55 million, West Virginia $8 million, Delaware $2 million and the District of Columbia $2 million. Each of those jurisdictions is expected to need to take additional actions to meet new nutrient reduction goals.
Nationally, spending for farm conservation programs will increase, but not as much as originally thought when the 2002 Farm Bill was passed. The administration has decided to shave 15 percent off conservation programs to fund technical assistance efforts aimed at helping farmers implement the new programs.
Authors of the Farm Bill support the need for technical assistance, but said it was supposed to be funded separately from the conservation programs. Nonetheless, many programs will still see increases, which should help nutrient control programs in the Bay watershed and elsewhere.
One exception is the Wetlands Reserve Program, which helps farmers restore and preserve wetlands through long-term easements. It is slated for a 29 percent cut, to $250 million, which will reduce the number of acres than can be enrolled from 250,000 per year to 178,000.
Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, called the action “a cut in one of the most successful tools in history to help farmers conserve America’s wetlands and wildlife,” and called on Congress to reject the proposal.
The significance of the program was touted by administration officials as recently as January, when the EPA and the Corps of Engineers announced they were instructing field staff not to assert federal jurisdiction over large amounts of “isolated” wetlands in the United States, saying the action was needed to comply with a 2001 Supreme Court decision. At the time, officials said the action would not affect the nation’s goal of no-net-loss of wetlands because other federal programs would still protect some of those wetlands, specifically citing the Wetlands Reserve Program.
On another issue, the budget seeks $7.2 billion for federal transit funding, the same as the previous year, but would require state and local governments to pay for a greater share of major transit construction projects, such as commuter rail systems. Right now, state and local sources pay 20 percent of the cost of new projects; the budget seeks to increase that to 50 percent.
Also, funding for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program would drop from $1.43 billion this year to $1.33 billion. The money goes to states to support projects and programs that help areas meet air quality standards.
But state and local land acquisition programs would get a boost as the administration proposed to increase state grants to $160 million, up from the $98 million approved this year. At the same time, land acquisition funding for federal agencies is being reduced.