The Trump administration has once again called for deep cuts in federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, despite failing twice before to convince Congress to approve similar proposals.The Trump administration has proposed slashing funds for the Chesapeake Bay restoration. Congress has rejected similar proposals for the past two years. (Dave Harp)

The move, announced Monday, drew immediate criticism from environmentalists and vows from lawmakers to maintain or even increase spending on the long-running restoration effort.

The fiscal year 2020 budget released by the White House would provide $7.3 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Chesapeake Bay Program. That represents a 90 percent reduction from this year’s funding level of $73 million.

It’s the third year in a row that the Trump administration has proposed slashing the Bay Program. In President Trump’s first year in office, he called for eliminating its federal funding completely. Last March, he also proposed a 90 percent reduction. Congress rejected both of those cuts.

The Bay Program cut is a tiny part of a sweeping scale-back in federal funding for environmental programs called for in the administration’s budget for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The EPA would get $6.1 billion overall, a reduction of $2.8 billion or 31 percent. That amount “continues EPA’s work to ensure clean air, water, and land, and safer chemicals,” the White House Office of Management and Budget says in a summary of the spending blueprint, “while reducing regulatory burden and eliminating lower-priority activities.”

The 150-page budget summary provides no explanation for the Bay Program reduction. It says only that the Trump administration proposes to fund programs to “measure and assess the health of the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.”

The EPA’s Great Lakes restoration effort also is targeted for a 90 percent reduction, from $300 million to $30 million. The agency’s other watershed efforts, including those focused on cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, South Florida and the Puget Sound, would be zeroed out altogether.

The EPA’s Bay Program office does much more than fund water quality monitoring and assess the Chesapeake’s health. It coordinates the partnership between federal agencies and the Bay watershed states — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York — plus the District of Columbia. Nearly three-fourths of its funding is passed on to states and local governments to support their cleanup efforts.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would cut other federal environmental agencies and programs as well. It calls for a 14 percent reduction at the Department of the Interior including reductions in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, even though Congress has overwhelmingly reauthorized the program at a higher funding level.

The budget also seeks to “streamline” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farmland conservation efforts in a way that would reduce spending by $8.9 billion over the next decade. That comes just a few months after Congress authorized full conservation program funding in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, would see a 19 percent decrease, including the elimination of the national Sea Grant program and coastal zone management grants.

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, decried the proposed Bay Program funding cut. He said it comes after receiving a personal assurance from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler that he supports the Bay restoration effort.

Baker and other top staff of the Annapolis-based environmental group met last week with Wheeler at EPA headquarters in the District of Columbia. Baker said Wheeler “affirmed” his full support of the federal-state cleanup effort led by the EPA. But the administrator did not make any commitments about funding, Baker said, stressing instead that he supports the President’s budget requests.

Bay restoration efforts are working, Baker said, but “to achieve our long-term goals the pace must be accelerated.” He said his group would work with the region’s members of Congress to see that funding is increased, not reduced.

Some members of Congress representing states in the Bay watershed quickly spoke out against the proposed funding cut.

“Not only is the Bay a national treasure, its health is crucial to the health of our Maryland economy,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, said. He pledged to “fight tooth and nail” to restore funding to the Bay Program.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, tweeted that slashing Bay Program funding would be “a complete disaster” for Virginia and the region.

Gov. Larry Hogan, chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council overseeing the restoration effort, issued a statement Wednesday calling the proposed Bay Program cut “potentially devastating.”

“The EPA administrator himself called the Chesapeake Bay Program a ‘high priority,’” Hogan said, “making this week's cut in the budget a total betrayal.”

The proposed Bay Program cuts come just days after members of Congress from Bay states introduced legislation that would reauthorize the cleanup effort for another five years. The measure, introduced in both the House and Senate by members of both parties, would authorize an increase in funding to $90 million in fiscal year 2020. Then, it would allow for a $500,000 increase in each of the following four years.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-MD, who is co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force in Congress, called the $455 million authorized through fiscal 2024 a “critical investment"

“States rely on the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program to provide federal accountability, enforceability and resources,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, said in a statement. “Less pollution means more oysters and crabs, healthier farmland, more boats and tourism on the water, and more jobs.”

Joining in sponsorship of the bill was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-WVA, who said that it would provide “critical grant funding” to her state for meeting its obligations to help restore the Bay’s water quality.