WASHINGTON (Sept. 26, 2017)—After years of steady progress for Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts, the conservation outlook is increasingly bleak for the country's largest estuary and the state that depends on it most—Maryland, bay advocates say.
From the Trump White House to the Republican-controlled Congress, programs aimed at improving the bay's health are facing cuts and policy shifts that environmental groups warn would reverse hard-won battles to curb pollution.
The first ominous sign came in May, when the Trump administration's proposed budget cut the Environmental Protection Agency's entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, the federal-state program that drives—and enforces—bay cleanup programs across six states, 180,000 miles of streams and rivers and 18 million people.
"We were told that that EPA supported full funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a bipartisan legislative body created by Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1980 to advise their respective state legislatures on bay-related concerns.
The commission met with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt before the Trump budget proposal was released. "We were told that (full funding) was a presidential recommendation and a recommendation of the OMB (Office of Management and Budget)," Swanson added.
House Republicans did not agree to the Trump cut, but did slash the EPA's bay program by $13 million, to $60 million, in the final appropriations bill that passed two weeks ago. The Senate has not yet considered the measure.
The spending bill contains another threat: Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, won approval of an amendment to prohibit enforcement of bay pollution limits by the EPA.
"At the heart of the issue is the EPA's desire to control conservation and water quality improvements efforts and punish all those who dare to oppose them," said Goodlatte, in support of his own measure on the House floor before it cleared on a 231-197 vote.
None of the members of the Maryland House delegation voted for the amendment, including Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, but he did ultimately support the final appropriations bill that included the EPA provision.
Yet another area of worry for bay advocates was the EPA and Trump administration's June announcement that it planned to rescind a contentious executive order by President Barack Obama expanding federal jurisdiction over bodies of water like streams and ponds that could be protected by the Clean Water Act.
The sum of these efforts has some bay conservationists and, surprisingly, Maryland farmers, wringing their hands.
"If the rest of the states loosen their (pollution) requirements due to lack of federal enforcement, most likely Maryland won't do that," said Colby Ferguson, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
What that means, explained Ferguson, is that Maryland farmers would have to spend more to adhere to conservation rules than their regional counterparts. They also would have to contend with agricultural run-off into the bay from states not enforcing the so-called "pollution diet" agreed to when they signed onto the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Initiative in 2014.
The pollution diet is also known as the Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, an EPA-established limit set in 2010 on the annual amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that finds its way into the bay from states in the Chesapeake watershed.
If those states—Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia—do not make sufficient progress toward their annual TMDL requirements, the EPA can apply "backstops," or enforcement actions to compel them to do more. The levying of backstops is what the Goodlatte amendment would prevent.
In April, Pennsylvania received what amounted to a warning letter from the EPA regarding its efforts to meet the TMDL.
"Pennsylvania remains far off track for nitrogen and phosphorous reductions," the letter stated, warning that the agency might direct conservation funding to other priorities and make additional cuts in support for the state's wastewater facilities.
In the same letter, the EPA noted that the Susquehanna River, the majority of which runs through Pennsylvania, was responsible for about 50 percent of the fresh water flowing into the bay.
In response to the Goodlatte amendment, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat and senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said: "A healthy bay means a healthy economy for the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed region, which cannot be accomplished without vibrant state, federal and local collaboration…I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure the federal government continues as a robust partner in this regional effort."
If the Goodlatte measure survives in the Senate, bay conservationists predict a return to the days when it was every state for itself when it came to policing water pollution restrictions.
"If we were to remove the EPA's ability to have the accountability for the states," said Kim Coble, vice president of environmental protection and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "we're basically back to the program that didn't work for decades, which was the states can try really hard (to achieve pollution-reduction goals) and if they make it, they make it. If they don't, they don't."
At stake is the progress already made toward improving water quality in the bay. According to a report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, bay waters experienced a 30-year low in dead zones, or areas with no dissolved oxygen, in 2016.
The commission also estimated the "natural capital value" of the Chesapeake Bay watershed to be $107.2 billion annually, and that would increase by $22.5 billion annually if the bay was completely clean. Maryland's share of the latter would be $6.2 billion annually.
Seasoned bay advocates like Swanson recommended the long view.
"Leaders have come and gone and we've had liberals and we've had conservatives," she said. "And the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay has always remained on course."
But Swanson was not as sanguine about potential federal budget cuts.
"Every economic analysis of our restoration effort says we need more money not less," she said, noting that state and private money for bay conservation tended to be about four times more than federal funds. However, she characterized the federal contribution as a "magnet" for all the other funding.
Also at risk in the Chesapeake conservation discussion is the so-called "Water of the United States," or WOTUS rule, established by an Obama executive order in 2015. The rule, which sought to expand what bodies of water could be protected under the Clean Water Act, was quickly challenged in court by manufacturing, agribusiness and anti-regulatory interests after it was signed and was never truly put in practice.
In announcing his executive order to put the WOTUS rule under review, President Donald Trump said: "…a few years ago, the EPA decided that 'navigable waters' can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer's land, or anyplace else that they decide—right? It was a massive power grab. The EPA's regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands…"
Maryland's senior senator recently offered a contrasting view.
"The Clean Water Rule expanded important protections to small streams and wetlands which, in turn, would have protected our drinking water, better safeguarded our communities from floods, and protected habitat for wildlife in Maryland and throughout the nation," Cardin said. "We need more protection for our water, not less."
The level of that protection might come down to what happens in the Senate as it works on the appropriations bills in the coming weeks.
"We've been through this before," said Coble, "and the senators are really critical and have been helpful in years past."