The massive infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law on Nov. 15 will give a big boost in federal funding for Chesapeake Bay restoration at a critical time in the long-running effort.
Congress included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act an additional $238 million over the next five years for the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal-state collaboration that guides the restoration effort. That represents a more than 50% increase in the $87.5 million currently budgeted for the Bay Program.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure also contains multiple other provisions that will bring billions of dollars to the Bay watershed for improving water and air quality, fish passage, coastal resilience, transit upgrades and climate-friendly renewable energy.
For instance, the bill provides $11.7 billion nationwide for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doles out in low interest loans to help upgrade sewage treatment facilities and control polluted stormwater runoff. Under the existing funding formula, the six Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia stand to get more than 20% of that additional money, or $2.5 billion in all.
Kristin Reilly, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, called the increased federal funding in the bill a “game-changer,” coming as it does with just a little more than four years to go before the 2025 deadline agreed to by Bay watershed states to have all pollution reduction practices in place needed to restore the Chesapeake’s water quality.
“While we have seen significant improvements in water quality,” Reilly said, “the work is by no means finished.”
Indeed, an internal review earlier this year warned that several key commitments made in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement were unlikely to be met by 2025, including taking steps needed to meet nutrient and sediment pollution reduction targets.
It's not clear how the additional Bay Program money will get spent. Congress gave no instructions or recommendations. But Reilly said that the new funding should go toward “on-the-ground restoration projects” in places where they will do the most to reduce pollution. Examples include planting riparian buffers on farmland and trees in urban areas, she said. But funding also needs to go toward environmental justice communities, she added, where people are disproportionally impacted by pollution.
“The more projects we are able to get in the ground,” Reilly concluded, “the more likely we are to meet the looming 2025 goals.”
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said the EPA should distribute the bulk of the new money in grants, either through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which leverages federal dollars by requiring matching funds, or directly to states, with instructions to prioritize spending in areas where it would have the greatest pollution reduction impact. He noted that the top 15 of those areas are in Pennsylvania, which is lagging badly in meeting its pollution reduction obligations, according to the Bay Program’s computer models. Critics say the state hasn’t put sufficient funds toward the effort.
Many other provisions in the bill also could funnel federal money to environmental projects in the Bay watershed, though how and where those funds would get spent is left largely to the discretion of federal agencies and states.
“It’s like a candy store,” Peter Marx, federal affairs contractor for the Choose Clean Water Coalition, said of the bill.
Included in the bill are:
- $11.7 billion nationwide for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which the EPA distributes to states for upgrading community water systems
- $15 billion nationwide over the next five years for replacing some of the residential service lines that pose a risk of leaching toxic lead into tapwater
- 5 billion for addressing “emerging contaminants,” which include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, so-called “forever chemicals” that have been discovered in groundwater, streams and fish nationwide, including in the Bay watershed
- $400 million over the next five years to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for restoring fish passage, with another $200 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the same purpose
- $280 million annually for grants to deal with sewer overflows and stormwater runoff
- $50 million annually to control invasive plants or trees in transportation corridors, and $2 million a year to plant pollinator-friendly grasses and wildflowers along roads and highways
The infrastructure bill also provides funding for some large undertakings that could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including $39 billion nationally to modernize public transit, $65 billion to upgrade the electric grid, $66 billion for Amtrak and $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations.
But Biden’s roughly $2 trillion "Build Back Better" bill, which passed the House on Nov. 19, offers more for the Bay in addition to addressing climate change, environmentalists say.
The bill, approved on a 220-213 vote, would funnel an additional $28 billion nationwide over 10 years to farm conservation efforts. Included within that would be $8.7 billion more for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture cost share program that gives farmers financial and technical help to reduce soil erosion and runoff among other things.
With farms across the Bay watershed responsible for an estimated 80% of the nitrogen pollution reductions still needed to achieve Bay water quality targets, state officials and some environmental advocates have been urging the USDA to designate $73.7 million a year in financial and technical assistance to farmers over the next decade under a “Chesapeake Resilient Farms Initiative.” The Build Back Better bill would go a long way toward providing the funds for that without taking existing funds from other states, advocates say.
Most of the tax-and-spending bill would go toward expanding health care and the social safety net, but it also includes $550 billion aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a series of incentives and tax credits. Electric vehicle buyers, for instance, would be eligible for $7,500 tax credits.
The Build Back Better bill faces uncertain prospects, however, in the closely divided Senate.
“There are less than five years to go for states to fulfill their commitments to improve water quality,” said CBF’s Baker. “Much more still needs to be done, especially in reducing pollution from agriculture….Congress must also pass the Build Back Better Act, which would invest more than $28 billion nationwide in conservation funding to help farmers further reduce pollution and combat climate change.”