Congress rejected the Trump administration’s call to eliminate funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program — or make other steep environmental cuts — and instead voted to maintain steady funding levels for the state-federal partnership.
The spending plan, approved by Congress and signed by the president March 23, funds the government for rest of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It includes $73 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program office, which coordinates the regional restoration effort and provides grants to states, local governments and nonprofits to support Bay-related activities.
In its initial budget proposal last spring, the administration had called for eliminating the Bay Program and other regional water quality initiatives, saying those efforts were best done by the states. That proposal was widely criticized by members of Congress and environmental advocates who fought to restore the funding.
“Once again, the Chesapeake attracts strong bipartisan support — a demonstration that clean water is important to all of us,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The Bay is making progress, and our legislators know how important it is to keep doing what works, especially when it is grounded in science.”
The legislation did not include an amendment that would have prevented the EPA from taking actions against states failing to meet Bay cleanup goals established under the authority of the Clean Water Act. The failed amendment was proposed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, and approved by the House last year.
Goodlatte said he was trying to prevent a “federal power grab,” but the measure was sharply criticized by environmental groups, many lawmakers and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan who, in a letter to Senate leaders, voiced “strong opposition” to the amendment because it would prevent the EPA from enforcing “policies and procedures that are necessary for achieving pollution reductions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” Hogan is chair of the Chesapeake Executive Council, the top policy-making body for the Bay Program.
Congress also ignored the administration’s call for a 30 percent cut to the EPA’s overall budget and kept the funding at $8.1 billion, about the same as the previous year.
The legislation also provides $2 million to the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Trails Program, similar to recent years. Under the program, the park service provides support to federal, state and local agencies and organizations to conserve culturally important landscapes and resources for future generations and to improve access to waterways.
“Public access is a critical component to the long-term strategy to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Joel Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “To make sure people are empowered to protect the Bay, we must ensure that they have access to it.” Dunn noted that the bill also contains $6 million to help conserve 5,000 acres on some of the Bay’s largest tributaries along parts of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The legislation also contains language to ensure that the EPA’s Bay Program office will remain in or near Annapolis. The agency had been exploring other sites for the office, including Fort Meade in Maryland.
The office is co-located with the offices of other federal agencies working on Bay issues, and it hosts many Bay Program meetings. The potential move had raised concerns that it would hurt interagency coordination and make meetings difficult to attend both for the public and other Bay cleanup participants, particularly if it was moved to a high-security area such as Fort Meade.
With funding for the current fiscal year approved — almost six months after it began — Congress will now grapple with funding for the next fiscal year.
In a budget proposal released Feb. 5, the administration no longer proposed to eliminate the EPA’s Bay Program, but it did call for a 90-percent cut in funding — to $7.3 million. Most of that money would be steered toward water quality monitoring, with funding eliminated for state and local restoration programs and EPA Bay staffing.
“As our region’s environmental treasure and economic driver, the Chesapeake Bay contributes more than $100 billion to our local economy every single year,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, co-chair of the Congressional Chesapeake Bay Task Force that in March sent letters to support continued Bay funding for the next fiscal year. “We cannot sacrifice the tremendous success we’ve had restoring Bay health over these last several years by undercutting critical programs that help conserve the watershed,” he said. “We must protect the Bay for future generations.”
The proposed budget would likewise slash funding for the Great Lakes regional initiative by 90 percent, while eliminating most other regional water programs, including those for the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, Long Island Sound and Lake Champlain.