Local governments throughout the Bay watershed would get more responsibilities—but also more funding—to help meet Chesapeake cleanup goals under legislation that was the subject of a House hearing in May.
The Chesapeake Restoration Enhancement Act would reauthorize and increase funding for the EPA’s Bay Program Office through 2011. But it also calls for the agency to set “measureable goals for local governments” to achieve the Bay Program’s nutrient and sediment reduction goals. The goals would be established within 120 days of the legislation’s passage.
Right now, nutrient and sediment goals are set for major subwatersheds which, at a minimum, encompass multiple counties.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, who introduced the bill last October, said the legislation was in part a response to his observation that many local elected officials and planners have little understanding of how their actions impact local streams and the Chesapeake
He said more than 4,000 houses are proposed in communities throughout his district, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but there is often little consideration about how that new development will impact the Chesapeake. Many local elected officials and planners “don’t have Chesapeake Bay issues in their frame of reference at all,” he said.
“I have also found that when people know something, their sense of appreciation increases for that issue in the great majority of cases,” Gilchrest said. “They just haven’t been exposed to that information.”
Theoretically, if local governments had nutrient and sediment limits, they would have to carefully weigh such things as the tradeoffs between allowing new developments with septic systems, which leak higher amounts of nitrogen, or requiring development to take place in areas with sewer systems, where wastes can be more effectively processed.
The congressman said more responsibility would spur more local government involvement, and also get them to press for more state and federal support. “When an entity like a small town or a county has a specific responsibility, you can believe they are going to start asking for help,” Gilchrest said. “That will help with the collaborative effort.”
Penny Gross, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the chair of the Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee, said many localities would be open to the goals—provided they get more financial support.
“In general, it sounds like a good idea, but the devil is in the details,” she said. “My concern is that I do not want to set up local governments for failure. So I think there has to be a lot more dialogue on that particular piece of it.
“We need to have federal and state funding for some of this,” Gross added. “It can’t always roll down onto local governments.”
The legislation calls for the Bay Program to work with the Local Government Advisory Committee in setting budget priorities and providing more technical support to help implement nutrient and sediment control strategies. It would require that each year, local governments get at least 40 percent of the Small Watershed Grants, which support locally based restoration projects.
Other provisions of the legislation would require the Bay Program to make annual reports about progress in restoring the Bay and its tributaries.
The legislation would allow Congress to provide the Bay Program with up to $40 million a year, along with another $10 million for its Small watershed Grants program. Right now the EPA’s Bay Program Office, which provides coordinating support for the Bay restoration and provides some funding to states, gets about $20 million a year and the Small Watershed Grants program gets about $2 million.
Actual funding, though, would be up to Congress during its annual appropriations process.
Members of Congress who testified at a May 4 hearing on the legislation, while lamenting progress in restoring the Chesapeake, expressed support for the Bay Program.
“If it were not for the Chesapeake Bay partnership … the Chesapeake Bay could very well be totally gone, dead,” said Rep. Ben Cardin, D-MD, a co-sponsor of the legislation. Yet, he added, “despite all the efforts, we are falling behind. We need a new push in the program.”
After more than 20 years of effort, monitoring has shown little evidence of significant Baywide water quality improvements, although some small tidal areas have had rebounds in water quality and underwater grasses.
One of the reasons cited for the lack of clear progress is that cleanup efforts have often been widely scattered throughout the watershed. To show improvements, many of those testifying called for better targeting of resources on technologies that provide the greatest nutrient reductions, and on regions that produce large amounts of nutrient-laden runoff.
“I wouldn’t be quick to give up,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “What I would be quick to do is to take your federal dollars, take your federal policy making, and force the targeting. There is a lot that can be done.”
Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, suggested that the greatest emphasis be placed on reducing nutrients from wastewater treatment plants and focusing agricultural programs on the three regions with large surpluses of animal manure—the Shenandoah Valley, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County and the Eastern Shore.
“We won’t get there unless we make those hard choices,” Hoagland said. “We have to be more deliberative, more specific and make harder choices in where we are going to use the money that we do get in order to get the Bay back.”
Ron Franks, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, cited the state’s Corsica River project, which is targeting efforts in a demonstration watershed so it can meet water quality standards. Such projects, he said, provide real-world examples that cleanup goals can be met and help to demonstrate what nutrient and sediment control actions are most effective.
“We will be able to say with honesty, we do know what needs to be done, and we have done it,” Franks said. “If we find in doing this river system that some things work and some things don’t, then we have that real experience that we can come back and say, we don’t need to do these things, we can do even more of these other things.”
On a more somber note, many of those testifying agreed with recent assessments that the region is unlikely to meet the goal of cleaning up the Bay by 2010.
“At the current rate, we will not meet that goal,” said Ben Grumbles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water. “But we feel that it would be premature to officially remove that goal. There is a tremendous power in having a deadline out there to really emphasize action and acceleration of progress.”
Except for the local government provisions, the House bill is similar to legislation in the Senate, although the Senate bill has not yet been the subject of a hearing.