Amid encouraging signs that the Chesapeake Bay’s health is on the upswing, state leaders of the restoration effort called Thursday for Congress not to let the Trump administration pull back from the federal-state collaboration.
At the annual meeting of the Bay Program’s Executive Council, the governors of Maryland and Virginia, plus officials from the four other Bay watershed states, the District of Columbia and the Chesapeake Bay Commission adopted a resolution appealing to President Donald Trump and Congress to “continue the current level of federal support.”
The fate of the long-running cleanup hangs in the balance, they warned.
“Let me be very clear,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who was ending a two-year term as head of the council, “without our important partnership at the federal level, there is no chance, no chance, that we would meet the 2025 requirements that were put upon us.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency coordinates the Bay Program, but the Trump administration has said it wants to eliminate it and other regional cleanup initiatives as part of a 31 percent cut in the EPA’s budget. The White House has also proposed deep reductions in other federal agencies and departments that assist the effort.
The EPA administrator is the federal government’s representative on the Executive Council, but Scott Pruitt was in Rome Thursday attending the G-7 international economic meeting. In his place was Kenneth Wagner, Pruitt’s senior advisor for regional and state affairs and a fellow Oklahoman.
Wagner told other council members that the EPA is “committed to continuing to provide the technical assistance and the support that makes the Chesapeake Bay Program work, and is committed to being a full partner.”
When asked to square that statement with the Trump administration’s proposal to slash federal Bay funding, Wagner responded that the president’s budget is “just a starting point.” He said EPA officials are fully committed to working with Congress to determine the right amount of funding to “empower” states to do environmental protection. When pressed, he said it’s “not really our decision” how much money the Bay restoration gets.
The EPA did not sign the resolution with other council members, citing laws which prohibit it from adopting advocacy statements.
But state officials at the meeting made it clear they believed ending or dramatically curtailing the federal role would derail nearly 34 years of effort which they said in the last few years has produced improvements not seen in decades.
“We’re at a tipping point, and it will take all of the Bay jurisdictions, and our federal partners working together to continue the great progress that we’ve made,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who inherited the council chairmanship and hosted the meeting in the State House in Annapolis.
The Bay states have been laboring since 1983 with the federal government’s help to restore the Chesapeake’s water quality. The Bay has long been plagued by algae blooms and a “dead zone” that starves fish, crabs and shellfish of the oxygen they need. After repeatedly missing past cleanup goals, the EPA in 2010 established a more enforceable “pollution diet” that gives the states and district until 2025 to take all of the steps needed to control the nutrient and sediment pollution that fouls the Bay’s water.
In the last year, there’s been a drumbeat of positive reports about Bay conditions, including remarkable water clarity in some areas, and the rebound of underwater grasses to their greatest extent in decades. Plus, there was no dead zone last summer. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science recently graded the Bay’s ecological health a ‘C’ last year, with the highest combined scores for water quality, habitat and fisheries that it’s gotten since the cleanup effort began.
“The nutrient diet agreed to by the Executive Council and enforced by the federal government is working,” Walter Boynton, a longtime estuarine ecologist with UM’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, told the group.
After years of study and struggle to find effective remedies, the estuary is “close to a tipping point,” Boynton said, when continued cleanup efforts will start to yield increasingly greater results.
“We are moving forward,” he concluded, adding that “we haven’t crossed the finish line yet, but we are getting there.”
Boynton noted that the Bay cleanup effort is widely regarded as a model for restoring damaged ecosystems because of its investment in research and water quality monitoring and the enduring collaboration between states and the federal government.
Others, while hailing the signs of progress, cautioned that much more needs to be done, especially as the region as a whole is not expected to meet an interim cleanup goal it had set for the end of this year.
All told, the federal government is pouring an estimated $500 million into the Chesapeake restoration, much of it in grants and technical assistance to states, local governments, farmers and community groups.
But without the $73 million that the EPA received this year for the Bay Program, McAuliffe warned, “certain states” would not be able to reach their pollution reduction targets.
“Financial support of this is not an option — it’s a requirement,” said Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who represented the commonwealth at the meeting. He described recent activities by his state to “reboot” its lagging cleanup efforts, funded at least in part with federal money.
As the council met inside the State House, environmental activists and Democratic state lawmakers staged a rally outside calling on Hogan, a Republican, to join the Climate Alliance, a group of 12 states - including Virginia, Delaware and New York from the Bay watershed - that have pledged to adhere to the international greenhouse gas reduction agreement reached in Paris. Trump recently announced the United States would withdraw from the pact. The group also called for Hogan to “stand up to Trump” on his proposal to slash Bay funding.
Hogan, who did not support Trump’s election and has been reluctant to speak publicly about him since, said he didn’t see the point of joining the Climate Alliance. He contended that Maryland already is ahead of most states in pledging to reduce greenhouse gases. He said he had spoken by telephone last week with Pruitt to express his disapproval of Trump’s decision to leave the Paris accord in addition to the president’s proposal to zero out funding for the Bay Program.
McAuliffe, Hogan and others vowed to press the case for maintaining full Bay funding with Congress, which is expected soon to begin drawing up spending bills for the next year.
“We are beginning to see the fruits of our labor, but we know that our next steps to better manage agriculture and stormwater runoff, in particular, will likely be our toughest,” said Virginia Del. Scott Lingamfelter, vice chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory body that’s party to the Bay restoration agreement.
“Now is not the time to allow ourselves to be distracted or defunded,” Lingamfelter added. “We all need to remain true to this endeavor together… If we do this right, if we can restore this great resource, it will be the most important restoration project in the world. If we do it right, other estuaries that are in trouble in this world will see the benefit of our wise strategies.”
After the meeting, William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that he believes the restoration effort won’t succeed if the states are left to do it on their own, without any help or pressure from the federal government.
“You can’t manage the Bay by individual state actions,” he said. “EPA is the glue that binds all the states together.”
Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship contributed to this story.