A relaxing trip to the beach could instead become a step into unknown waters next year.
In its quest to squeeze dollars from environmental programs, the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 spending plan would eliminate federal support for water quality monitoring at beaches, which could warn swimmers of high bacteria levels and other pollution threats.
Trump’s budget proposal also would slash money for programs that help predict when conditions are right for harmful algae blooms and outbreaks of dangerous vibrio bacteria that may lurk in the water.
And, if swimmers come across dead or dying fish, there would be less money for scientists to figure out what made them sick.
For many, those risks may be esoteric, because just getting to the water could become more difficult. If the cuts were approved by Congress, they would slash money to purchase public land and to provide federal assistance to local communities that might want to build a boat ramp or other water access site.
Those are just some of the ripple effects that could be caused by spending cuts in the administration’s proposed 2018 budget, which was released in late May. Even if Congress does not approve all of the reductions, many fear uncertainty created by the spending plan will delay key environmental initiatives, end important research and spur experienced workers to leave their jobs.
When the administration aired its initial budget outline in March, much of the Bay region’s attention focused on massive cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — including the elimination of its Chesapeake Bay Program Office, which could dramatically set back cleanup efforts.
But thousands of pages of budget documents released in May show how cuts would strike nearly every environmental program. Besides setting back Bay pollution reduction efforts; work to achieve the more than two dozen other goals and desired outcomes in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, including expanding environmental education, restoring oysters, conserving land and improving public access to the water, would face cuts or outright elimination.
“The more time I spend with President Trump’s budget proposal, the deeper my concerns grow about its potential effect on the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, a longtime Bay advocate.
“The Trump budget would destroy not only the overall framework for restoration by eliminating the Chesapeake Bay Program,” Cardin said, “but it would also starve numerous smaller programs that have been carefully tailored to the needs of farmers, municipalities and organizations that want to do their part to help the Bay recover its legendary vitality.”
Reversal of Obama’s Bay focus
Presidents of both parties have proposed cuts to various environmental programs in the past, but none has put forward a budget where the cutbacks were so broad in scope, nor so deep. The EPA would be hit with a 31 percent reduction, the Department of Interior would lose 12 percent and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 20 percent.
Few expect Congress, which has the responsibility of writing final spending plans, to go along with all the cuts. And many expect at least a portion of the Bay Program funding to be restored, as cuts to it, and the agency’s other regional programs in such places as the Great Lakes and Puget Sound, have drawn strong opposition from Congress.
But with so many initiatives being targeted, some will almost certainly be lost, or suffer major reductions.
“Most people are saying ‘expect some cuts,’ ” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory panel. “So, it may be death by 1,000 cuts. There may be a winnowing of the restoration effort at a time when acceleration is our only option.”
The budget plan represents a U-turn from the early days of the Obama administration, when the White House issued an executive order declaring the Bay a “national treasure,” and when — after numerous restoration goals had been missed in the past — the president called for a “new era of federal leadership” to get efforts on track, including a federal Bay strategy backed with increased funding.
Instead, the Trump administration’s EPA budget calls for “cooperative federalism” between states and the agency, to share responsibility when it comes to protecting air and water resources. Instead of leading, it envisions the EPA’s role as simply to “encourage” states to pursue Bay restoration.
Federal budget documents anticipate that states would pick up the slack — both for the Bay and other environmental work. But critics point out that many of the federal cuts at EPA and in other agencies come in programs that provide money to state and local governments.
“We hear from states and localities, and we do know that they cannot make up the difference,” said Paula Jasinski, chair of the Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee. “They are doing everything they can.”
Various EPA grants provide between a quarter and a third of the budgets for state environmental agencies, both across the nation and in the Bay watershed.
“Significantly reducing federal funding to the states is not cooperative federalism,” Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s environment secretary, said in a letter to the EPA after the release of the budget in May. “It is asking the states to continue to accept all of the responsibility while eliminating the resources to carry them out.”
Bay-related cuts go far beyond the EPA. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Chesapeake-related work faces a nearly 50 percent reduction, which would cause major reductions to programs that monitor where nutrients are coming from in the watershed and how many reach the Chesapeake each year. Such information is key to measuring the effectiveness of cleanup efforts.
“You basically destroy our ability to understand what is actually happening in the water,” Swanson said. “The USGS, in many ways, has given us the facts to understand the truth in our restoration.”
The budget would sharply reduce support for USGS research on chemicals blamed for affecting fish health and creating “intersex” fish in the Susquehanna and Potomac river basins, as well as for research on the impact of other contaminants of emerging concern — such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products — on fish and wildlife in the region.
Further, the Bay — and the region’s environment — would be affected by a host of cuts to national conservation and research programs.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $75-million Coastal Zone Management grants program would be eliminated. It supports state initiatives that balance ecological and economic needs in coastal areas — helping to pay for stormwater controls that reduce pollution, for instance, or improving boat access that boosts tourism.
It would eliminate the $23 million in annual federal support for the National Estuarine Research Reserve System — including sites in both Maryland and Virginia — which are focal points for learning about coastal ecosystems.
The budget would zero out NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training Program, which is the largest federal source of outdoor education funding in the watershed. Environmental education programs at the EPA would get the axe, as would youth programs in the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Also eliminated — just within the EPA — would be programs to help state and local governments monitor water quality at beaches, environmental justice programs that seek to reduce pollution for disadvantaged communities, research on hormone-altering chemical compounds, pollution prevention and energy savings programs.
Research programs hard-hit
Overall, science-related programs would be especially hard hit. Those focused on climate change face outright elimination or steep cuts in all agencies. Some of the proposed reductions would affect the region’s ability to understand and plan for the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise. Research would also be curtailed on climate-related issues such as ocean acidification, which could have great implications for Bay species, especially oysters, which may suffer fatal shell thinning.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, a $13-million program that helps land managers — including those in the watershed — plan for climate change impacts, would be eliminated.
Also gone would be a long-running program to measure the airborne deposition of toxic substances, nutrients and other pollutants on waterways, forests and other ecosystems. Atmospheric deposition is one of the largest sources of nitrogen to the Bay watershed.
Many modest-size science programs in various agencies that sometimes support Bay research are slated for deep cuts or outright elimination, even though the budget documents themselves implicitly warn that such reductions will harm the ability of agencies to do their job. For instance, the budget would eliminate a $9 million research program at NOAA that helps it assess threats to coastal areas from things like severe storms or vibrio bacteria, even though the budget says that research is “responsible for much of the body of science that underpins NOAA forecasts of ecological hazards.”
While many expect Congress will not go along with many of the White House’s proposed cuts, “we’re going to be under prolonged uncertainty,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Money for research comes from many different sources, and Boesch said he doubted it could all be preserved. He likened the onslaught to an artillery barrage — “you’ve got incoming from all directions. Some (cuts) are going to be stopped and defeated, but others are going to get through.”
Future uncertainty has already put some work on hold. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, for instance, was slated to receive two, three-year grants totaling $1.5 million to study the growing number of harmful algae blooms — including a new, highly toxic species that has turned up in the Bay in recent years — which threatens human health and the state’s growing aquaculture industry. The research would, among other things, identify what conditions trigger algae to become toxic and techniques to predict when and where problems may occur.
But, the fate of the award is in limbo because NOAA’s harmful algae research program is now slated for elimination. Mark Luckenbach, VIMS associate dean of research and advisory services, said the biggest loser is not the researchers, but the state’s $50-million-a-year aquaculture program and those wanting to swim or fish in the water who may be at risk from toxic blooms.
“What Virginia would lose is the better understanding of these blooms, the early warning system we are trying to develop and the better knowledge of the toxicity,” Luckenbach said.
Land protection scaled back
On the other hand, people would likely have a harder time getting to the water under the Trump budget proposal.
It would, for example, cut in half the funding for the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails network, from $2 million to $1 million, although budget documents acknowledge that the reduction would postpone or eliminate grants for acquiring three to five new public access sites next year and developing interpretive materials.
Drastic cuts are also slated for other programs that would promote public access. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps purchase ecologically and recreationally valuable lands, is proposed to receive just $64 million nationwide, down from $450 million in 2016.
The fund has provided about $21 million to protect land along Bay tributaries in recent years, and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations have identified additional high-priority areas they’d like to protect along all major rivers, from the Susquehanna to the James.
“Land conservation and public access are a big deal,” said Joel Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “It is not big money, but it is big impact.” Recent studies have estimated that outdoor recreation generates $13.6 billion in consumer spending in Virginia, and $9.5 billion in Maryland, he said.
Conservationists worry that uncertainty created by the budget proposals will do far-reaching harm to land protection efforts. Purchases often take years of negotiations, and when agreements are reached, nonprofit organizations often step in to buy tracts until they can be reimbursed by federal agencies. If that funding is in doubt, it could affect the willingness of landowners to sell, and nonprofits to purchase, high-priority land.
Indeed, many worry there is a hidden cost of threatened cuts that cannot be measured in dollars. They say the uncertainty created by the budget, and the likely de-emphasis of environmental programs, will probably drive talented, experienced experts into early retirement or private industry, and keep promising young professionals from wanting to join public service.
“With all of these cuts go people,” Swanson said. “In many situations, those are people with years and years of experience. You are losing the institutional memory of those people, and their ability to get the job done more quickly because of their experience.
“We are really losing a lot more than just the money.”
The lowdown on key cuts to Bay projects
Here is a sampling of some of the budget cuts proposed in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget that would directly impact the Chesapeake Bay. The budget would:
- Eliminate all $73 million for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, which helps to coordinate the science, research, modeling and monitoring programs that guide restoration efforts. About two-thirds of the funding goes to states and local cleanup efforts.
- Eliminate all $230 million in EPA’s Section 106 grants program, which helps states regulate industrial and wastewater treatment plant discharges. Last year, it provided $10 million to support Bay states’ efforts.
- Eliminate all $170 million in the EPA’s nonpoint source (Section 319) grants, which help states control runoff pollution into waterways. Last year, it provided $8 million for Bay restoration.
- Eliminate U.S. Geological Survey activities in the Bay watershed from $12.6 million last year to $6.8 million, reducing the monitoring of nutrients and toxics in the region’s waterways, research about the impact of contaminants on fish and wildlife, and assessments of the impact of land use changes.
- Eliminate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which provides targeted funding to high-priority areas, including parts of the Bay watershed, to help farmers install and maintain conservation practices that protect water quality. The program has been providing an average of about $11 million a year to the Chesapeake region.
- Eliminate all $73 million for NOAA’s national Sea Grant College program, which pays for research and outreach to aid coastal economies, including sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Last year, Sea Grant received $4 million for Bay-related programs in Maryland and Virginia.
- Eliminates the $5 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has received annually in most recent years to support oyster restoration in Chesapeake Bay tributaries, such as Harris Creek, the Tred Avon and Piankatank.
Bay Journal managing editor Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this story.