It’s not on the official agenda, but Pennsylvania’s lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts could be Topic A Tuesday when leaders of the federal-state restoration effort get together at the Virginia State Arboretum in Boyce, 70 miles west of Washington. D.C.
A “significant announcement” is expected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state of Pennsylvania, according to Rachel Felver, spokeswoman for the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program.
Felver offered no other information about the announcement expected at the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council. But Pennsylvania has been under pressure from the EPA to catch up with the watershed’s other five states in reducing the nutrient and sediment pollution that fouls the Bay.
The USDA, meanwhile, has been pressed as well to provide more financial assistance to get farmers to reduce runoff from their fields and feedlots — particularly in Pennsylvania, where agriculture is the overwhelming source of nutrient and sediment pollution.
Pennsylvania is seriously behind in meeting its Bay cleanup obligations, and it is responsible for the lion’s share of the nutrient reductions that still have to be made to meet Bay water quality goals.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who took office last year, has blamed much of his state’s laggard performance on his predecessors. After the EPA withheld some federal funds last year as a show of its displeasure over Pennsylvania’s slow pace, the governor unveiled a plan in January to “reboot” the state’s Bay cleanup efforts.
But it’s taken his administration nearly eight months to launch the first major initiative of that plan -- beginning to inspect 10 percent of the farms in the Bay watershed. And he has yet to propose a budget with enough additional funding for streamside tree planting and other activities that might enable the state to catch up with its overdue obligations under the EPA-imposed Bay “pollution diet.” Penn State has estimated the state might need to spend $260 million to $380 million a year through 2025 to reduce farm and stormwater pollution enough to meet its goal.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in July to say she was “concerned by the lack of investment in, and slow progress on” the state’s reboot plan. She then said that she wanted to confer with Wolf in advance of Tuesday’s meeting so she could report that “Pennsylvania is doing everything possible to restore and accelerate implementation of the Commonwealth’s Bay commitments.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, meanwhile, has publicly called on the USDA to pump $20 million into conservation practices in five south-central Pennsylvania counties that the environmental group says are, collectively, the leading source of nitrogen pollution to the Susquehanna River, the Bay’s largest tributary.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service said it has funneled $267 million into helping farmers in Pennsylvania from 2009 through 2015. But since Congress passed a new Farm Bill two years ago, federal financial help for farmers to adopt conservation practices has declined across the Bay watershed.
The Executive Council is the top policy-making body for the Bay restoration effort, and includes the governors from all six states in the watershed, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the EPA administrator and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory panel.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the council’s chairman, will host the two-hour session, which was rescheduled and shortened — apparently to accommodate the busy schedules of those attending. The EPA’s McCarthy is expected to be there, the most senior of a cadre of federal agency representatives. Pennsylvania’s Gov. Wolf also plans to make it, something his predecessors rarely did.
Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan is not anticipated. Hogan missed last year’s council meeting because he was undergoing treatment for cancer, and he completed his final maintenance treatment on Monday, a spokesman said. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford attended in Hogan’s place last year, but will be at an opioid addiction conference on Tuesday. Maryland will be represented by two cabinet secretaries. There will be un-elected stand-ins as well for council members representing Delaware, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Those who do attend are expected to vote on a resolution pledging to work with local governments as they try to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution fouling the Bay from their communities, according to a media advisory. The only other action that had been planned for the meeting — selection of an independent evaluator for assessing the efficacy of the Bay restoration effort — has been put off.
Council members will hear a review of restoration progress to date, of which there has been a drumbeat of good news lately. Water quality last year was the fourth best in the three decades since the restoration campaign began, the Bay Program announced recently. Monitoring data showed that 37 percent of the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries last year had met their water quality goals for dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and algae concentrations.
Bay grasses also are making a strong comeback; scientists tallied 91,621 acres of the ecologically vital underwater vegetation last year, the most in more than 30 years of annual surveys and nearly half of the restoration goal. And the estimate of female adult blue crabs in the Chesapeake last winter soared to 194 million, the third highest level in the past 26 years for the estuary’s most valuable seafood stock.
But all of these indicators of Bay health are still short of their restoration targets, and similar upswings in past years have been followed by downturns, often in response to changing weather conditions. Last year’s dry weather, for example, deserves much of the credit for the Bay’s improved water quality. Less precipitation — 25 percent below normal last year — means less pollution running off the land.
Though not an action item, the council will get a briefing on the launch of an ambitious new Bay restoration planning effort. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had teamed up with the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to identify a wide range of activities that could be undertaken across the six-state watershed to revive the Chesapeake’s water quality and enhance its habitat for fish and wildlife.
This $2.8 million watershed study was first authorized back in 2002, but until two years ago, Congress had not provided any money for it.
The fish and wildlife foundation is joining with the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to provide $1.55 million of in-kind assistance to the effort, according to Jake Reilly, the foundation’s Bay director. Specifically, the trio of entities will help obtain, process and analyze high-resolution land-cover data that can be used to identify specific problem areas and possible remedies.
Each state has been asked to identify a Bay tributary it wants to target for restoration efforts. New York and Pennsylvania have preliminarily selected the upper and lower portions of the Susquehanna watershed, while Maryland has chosen the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore. Delaware pinpointed its end of the Nanticoke River, the District designated the Anacostia River and Rock Creek, and West Virginia proposed the Opequon Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, as its focus for work. Virginia has yet to pick a target watershed, Reilly said.
The end result, according to Corps officials, is likely to be an extensive listing of projects intended to complement rather than duplicate existing restoration efforts already under way.
“At the end of this we will not have authority to construct anything,” said Daniel Bierly, chief of the civil project development branch for the Corps’ Baltimore District. “This is merely laying out a plan, a blueprint. From that, projects could be plucked.”
Some could be done by the Corps, provided Congress approves funding for further study and construction, and non-federal partners step up with matching funds or help. Others could be done by other federal, state or local agencies — or even by nonprofit groups.
The Corps crafted a similar type of restoration plan for the Anacostia River several years ago that listed about 3,000 different projects that could be done in that watershed, Bierly said. Local agencies have been picking off projects from that list since then, he noted.
The fish and wildlife foundation is a leading conservation grant-maker nationwide, supporting efforts as diverse as wildfire prevention to shoring up sagging populations of monarch butterflies. The foundation already has provided more than $100 million for nearly 1,000 projects in the Bay watershed, often enlisting additional matching funds.
The foundation’s involvement with the new watershed study, Reilly said, is “really trying to find a way we can be surgical, with the added value of the Corps being involved.”