The Trump administration would shut down the 34-year-old Chesapeake Bay Program restoration partnership in its “America First” budget blueprint released in March, while likely cuts to other initiatives would further set back efforts to restore the nation’s largest estuary, advocates say.
The 53-page budget outline would slash federal funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program — which guides the overall state-federal restoration effort — from $73 million to nothing in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The EPA’s overall budget was targeted for a 31 percent reduction.
The White House called also for sharp decreases in other agencies and departments that have contributed to the Bay restoration effort, but gave few details of how those might play out in specific programs or initiatives.
The administration is expected to release a more detailed spending plan in May. But the potential cuts have already alarmed those who’ve labored for more than three decades to revive the Bay’s ecological health.
“If this program is eliminated, there is a very real chance that the Bay will revert to a national disgrace,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker, “with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shellfish, and water-borne diseases that pose a real threat to human health.”
It also galvanized a bipartisan pushback from elected officials throughout the region, as state officials and members of Congress weighed in against the proposed cuts.
“We do not support reductions in the cleanup,” said a spokesman for Rep. Scott Taylor, R-VA. He had joined four other Republican and 12 Democratic members of Congress in a letter to the White House more than two weeks before the budget was released urging it to maintain the current Bay Program funding level.
Lawmakers were quick to note that Congress has the final say on federal spending, and that Trump’s budget is just a guide. Indeed, a few Republican leaders called the administration’s overall fiscal plan “dead on arrival.”
Even so, Trump’s spending blueprint presents a challenge, as it lays out his priorities for the next four years. It calls for the federal government to back off from regional environmental efforts like the Bay restoration.
“The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities,” explained a summary of the president’s budget that was posted online. Federal funding for restoration of the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and other watersheds was also targeted for elimination.
That view of a limited federal role in the Bay’s restoration represents a radical shift from the stance taken by every president since Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 declared the Chesapeake a “treasured national resource.” Reagan called for a sizable boost in the EPA’s budget, in part to begin “the long, necessary effort” to clean up the Bay.
The Bay Program, which operates as a partnership between states and the federal government, was created the year before, when the EPA administrator signed the first of several agreements pledging to work with the Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to deal with pollution degrading the estuary’s water quality and fish populations.
Funding for the Bay Program Office has ticked up and down, but increased overall since then. Along the way, Congress wrote the Bay Program into law, spelling out the EPA’s responsibilities to coordinate the efforts of other federal agencies and the states in reducing pollution and restoring the estuary’s living resources.
The White House’s proposed elimination of Bay Program funding comes despite praise that Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, lavished on it during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. Under questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, Pruitt called it “something that should be commended and celebrated.” He pledged to enforce the Bay pollution reduction plan that the EPA had worked out with the states, and to see that the effort continued to get federal resources.
Asked how Trump’s budget blueprint squares with Pruitt’s Senate testimony, an EPA spokeswoman emailed a statement saying it “reflects the President’s priorities of preserving clean air and water as well as to ease the burden of costly regulations to industry. Administrator Pruitt is committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with states to fulfill the agency’s core mission.”
Zeroing out Bay Program funding would affect the research, monitoring and modeling that guide the cleanup. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that could undermine what he called the “world-class expertise” that has made the Bay restoration effort a model for trying to revive other degraded ecosystems. “It’s just unconscionable that Congress would let that all slip away by terminating it,” Boesch said.
The loss of EPA funding could have an immediate impact on the pace of the cleanup. More than two-thirds of the Bay Program’s funds get passed through to states and local governments to support their work.
“Essentially, they are saying they are going to turn over more authority to the states, and then cut the amount of money for the states to do it,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said his state gets about $9 million a year from the EPA for its Bay-related work, money that helps to pay the salary for dozens of state employees. But he said he’s also concerned the funding cuts could affect the EPA’s ability to ensure that states stick to the “pollution diet” requiring them to reduce nutrient and sediment fouling the Chesapeake.
“We all benefit by having a federal umpire and facilitator who’s helping to grade and hold partners accountable,” Grumble said. “That’s another concern.”
Pennsylvania, which has been struggling to come up with funds to help it catch up with its cleanup responsibilities, gets even more from the EPA — $11 million, according to Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
In a letter to the EPA’s administrator, Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the loss of that money would hurt the state’s ability to pay for pollution control efforts on farms, where it has tried to focus nutrient control efforts.
“These budget cuts do not reduce any of the responsibilities that DEP has to the people of Pennsylvania, but does decrease the resources available to fulfill those responsibilities,” McDonnell wrote. “These cuts, if enacted, would harm businesses seeking permits, and harm residents’ clean water, air, and land.”
Although the most severe cuts would fall on the EPA, other federal departments that play a role in the Chesapeake Bay restoration also face double-digit reductions. Altogether, federal agencies provided $536 million for Bay-related projects in 2016, helping to fund everything from wastewater treatment plant upgrades and farm runoff controls to oyster reef construction and wetland restoration.
In the budget plan, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture faces a 21 percent cut, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 16 percent, and the Department of the Interior 12 percent.
In many cases, the budget provides little detail about how hard various programs would be hit, but the Interior Department’s land acquisition money, which has been used to help purchase sensitive areas around the Bay in recent years, would be slashed.
At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $250 million would be cut from grants supporting coastal and marine management, research and education. Among the areas slated for elimination is NOAA’s Sea Grant program, which provides about $4 million annually in Bay-related research and education efforts.
In a letter to congressional appropriation subcommittee chairs, nine Democratic senators from the watershed warned that states could not succeed in their efforts to restore the Bay “without strong and sustained federal support.” If applied across-the-board, they warned the cuts could harm programs such as the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails program and the 10-year old Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The Corps’ cuts could be a setback to efforts to restore oyster populations in 10 Bay rivers by 2025, for which the federal government is the single largest funder.
In Maryland, Democratic state lawmakers have been especially vocal about the cuts, noting the importance of the Bay to the state’s economy and culture. They introduced a resolution and punctuated it with a press conference decrying the cuts and calling on Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to speak out publicly against them as well. A Hogan spokeswoman dismissed the Democrats’ appeal, though, as a political ploy. “The governor has already made it clear that he will always fight for the Chesapeake Bay and that he opposes hypothetical cuts at the federal level,” she said.
The CBF’s Baker said he’s worried that the loss of federal funds may result in a loss of “political will” in state houses and city halls to increase spending if the federal government backed off.
“If the federal funds go away,” Boesch agreed, “the thought that we could go back and get state governments to double or triple investments is just naïve, given the budget issues they’re dealing with.”
Even if, as many expect, Congress dismisses Trump’s budget as too extreme, environmentalists said they worry it could give lawmakers cover to slash environmental programs much more than they have in the past.
“The real danger here is not that Congress will approve these numbers, it’s clear that they won’t,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The danger is that people start taking it seriously as a point of negotiation.”
(A portion of Bay Journal funding also comes from a Bay Program grant.)