The Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort — and oyster restoration as well — are in line to get more federal help if Congress follows through on recent actions by a key House committee.A heron scopes out a fisherman’s net on the Little Blackwater River, part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (Dave Harp)

Rejecting President Trump’s proposal to slash funding for the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, the House Appropriations Committee on May 22 approved a spending bill for fiscal year 2020 that instead increases federal funding for the effort by $12 million to $85 million.

The Bay Program funding boost was part of a $37.3 billion overall spending bill the committee approved to fund the operations of the Department of the Interior, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other related agencies.

For the increase to become real, it must survive a vote by the full House and then the Senate. Congress in the last two years has rebuffed the Trump administration’s proposals to decimate Bay Program funding — to eliminate it completely in Trump’s first year and reduce it by 90% for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

But if approved, this would mark the first time since Trump took office that Congress actually increased Bay Program funding above its current $73 million level. A favorable vote in the House, now controlled by Democrats, seems assured. The outcome in the Republican-controlled Senate is less certain.

The House committee vote drew praise from Gov. Larry Hogan, chair of the Bay Program’s Executive Council, who had joined environmental groups in urging Congress to increase rather than cut funding for the restoration effort as it strives to adopt all needed pollution reduction programs and measures by 2025.

Hogan tweeted after the committee vote that he hoped the full House would promptly approve what he called “common sense action” to help restore “this national treasure.”

The House Appropriations panel also proposed spending $5 million for large-scale oyster restoration efforts in a separate bill providing funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Oysters help filter nitrogen and sediment from the water, and their reefs provide habitat for fish, crabs, shrimp and other marine life. In recognition of those vital roles in the Bay’s ecological health, Maryland and Virginia agreed in 2014 to restore reef habitat and oyster populations in 10 Bay tributaries by 2025.

The Corps has been a major partner in that effort, reconstructing reefs in Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River in Maryland and in the Lynnhaven and Piankatank rivers in Virginia. But it has received no new funding for such work since 2015, when at watermen’s behest, the Hogan administration asked the Corps to halt reef construction in the Tred Avon on the Eastern Shore.

The state eventually allowed work to resume in the Tred Avon, but the Obama administration stopped requesting funding for Bay oyster restoration in the Corps budget. Nor has the Trump administration sought to resume it. So, with its funding drying up, the Corps has yet to complete its work there, and its ability to finish other planned reef projects in the Bay is in doubt.

Watermen had complained about the Corps’ use of granite to build reefs there and in nearby Harris Creek, which they said wouldn’t support oysters and posed navigation hazards. Some of the reefs in Harris Creek were built too close to the water’s surface and had to be reduced, but surveys have found oysters thriving on the granite reefs.

Watermen’s larger complaint had to do with millions being spent to restore reefs in Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries, which are off-limits to commercial harvest. They have pressed to reopen some to harvest, and the Hogan administration has indicated its willingness. But the state’s lawmakers this year overrode Hogan’s veto to enact a law barring harvest in the five sanctuaries undergoing large-scale restoration, which in addition to Harris and the Tred Avon include the Little Choptank, Manokin and St. Mary’s rivers.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker welcomed the House committee’s vote to provide Corps funding for reef restoration, saying, “Oysters are critical to the Bay’s health just as coral reefs are in the tropics.”

While the House panel didn’t say all of the proposed oyster restoration money had to be spent in the Chesapeake, its report specifically endorsed the continuing work to rebuild oyster populations there, without mentioning any other possible recipients for the funding.