The three “headwater states” of New York, West Virginia and Delaware have agreed to help control nutrients to clean up the Chesapeake. But does that mean they should become full members in the Bay Program, sharing more of its funds, and also shouldering more responsibilities?
It’s a question regional officials have debated for years, but the issue is getting heightened attention. In the past two years, the governors of all three states signed formal agreements pledging to help clean up the Bay.
In exchange, the the EPA gave each of the headwater states a total of $250,000 each over the past two years from the Bay Program’s budget to work on Chesapeake-related activities.
In March, those states were assigned their first-ever nutrient reduction goals. At the same meeting, officials got a report painting a mixed picture of how to further involve those states in meeting Bay objectives.
A survey of senior officials from all of the states in the watershed conducted for the EPA by David Bancroft, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, revealed that some worry that expanding the Bay Program’s membership would further drain its $20 million-a-year budget, which has changed little over the past decade.
On the other hand, some thought the greater involvement of headwater states would boost political support in Congress for the cleanup effort.
The quandary over how to involve headwater states has existed since the original Bay Program partnership was created in 1983, consisting of the EPA, the states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures. At that time, the headwater states were thought to be too far away from the Chesapeake, and to contribute too little pollution, to be of concern. Today, officials believe cleanup goals cannot be met without their participation.
The headwater states contribute about 12 percent of the total nitrogen load entering the Bay, and each is a major contributor to individual rivers. New York contributes 15 percent of all the Susquehanna River’s nitrogen, West Virginia generates 12 percent of the Potomac’s nitrogen, and Delaware accounts for almost a quarter of the nitrogen from the Eastern Shore. It’s unlikely any of those rivers could meet new cleanup goals without upstream help.
But the benefits headwater states receive from the Bay vary dramatically. Delaware is so close, it shares tidal waters with the Chesapeake. West Virginia, by contrast, is physically severed from the Bay and its living resources by the Great Falls of the Potomac, which have always blocked the upstream movement of migratory fish.
New York, while the farthest from the Bay, historically had runs of shad and herring up the Susquehanna. Those links were severed by hydroelectric dams built over the past century, but with the completion of new fish passages, they may return. For the first time, New York stocked shad in its portion of the river last summer.
While headwater state representatives have expressed interest in a greater voice in the Bay Program—especially on water quality issues—Bancroft found they were reluctant to make the staff commitments required to participate in the Bay Program’s myriad system of committees, subcommittees and work groups, which cover topics ranging from nutrients, monitoring and modeling to living resources, toxic pollution and urban storm water management.
Many felt that level of participation, combined with new nutrient control obligations, was too much of a burden with too little return. Officials from headwater states noted that the money they have received from the Bay Program requires a one-to-one match, a ratio more unfavorable than that of other federal programs.
Further, in tight budget times, the states’ share of the matching funds may not be available.
At the same time, participants—including those from headwater states—thought it might be appropriate for governors to sign onto specific parts of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which guides restoration efforts. Specific items of interest included improving fish passage, controlling exotic species, managing land use and expanding riparian forest buffers.
“There are several interim steps between the status quo and full membership that offers the Chesapeake Bay Program ways to engage the headwaters to help reach Chesapeake 2000 agreement goals,” Bancroft said. “Among the most powerful are inviting the governors of Delaware, New York and West Virginia to the Executive Council meetings dealing with water quality issues.”
Inviting the governors to annual Executive Council meetings—which include the governors of the three original Bay states; the District of Columbia mayor; the EPA administrator; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission—would increase their involvement in Bay issues, potentially creating more support for Bay goals and send a powerful message about regional support for the cleanup effort, Bancroft said.
From there, it may be appropriate to incorporate headwater state representation in top Bay Program policy committees, although not all of its subcommittees and work groups, he said.
Based on the report, the Bay Program is planning to develop several options to be debated later this year.