Bay Advocates Fear Federal Cuts Could Jeopardize Progress

May 23, 2017

The Church Creek restoration project slows pollution laden run-off heading to the South River.
Credit Brendan Reynolds

Chesapeake Bay advocates got a shock when President Donald Trump proposed zeroing EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program out of the federal budget. That shock eased some when Congress agreed to a stopgap spending measure that saved the money for now. But, that's only good until September. Reporters from Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative decided to see what the loss of that money would mean in practical terms for the Bay clean-up.

Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said efforts to restore the oyster population, are "very heavily dependent on the continued federal investment."

And Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the loss of those funds would hurt economically when it comes to the burgeoning oyster industry in Maryland and Virginia. It wouldn’t be just the watermen who harvest those oysters who would take a hit, but also the "shuckers, wholesalers, retailers, those who move the material, restauranteurs," he said.

Maryland’s Sen. Ben Cardin and Delaware’s Tom Carper, both Democrats, pledged to work through the budget process to save the program. And Congress restored the money in a stop gap spending measure passed a few weeks ago. But that’s only good until September.

All of this comes as bay scientists release report cards that show slow, steady progress. And environmental advocates fear that progress, achieved through projects on tributaries like the South River, south of Annapolis, would be in jeopardy. The river, once highly polluted with the run-off from all those suburban developments south of Annapolis, has been getting better; if ever so slightly.

Jesse Iliff, the South River keeper, says it’s hard to pin down a single reason for the improvement, but one thing’s for sure. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL—total maximum daily load, better known as the pollution diet—"has forced states to implement water quality improvement practices across the bay watershed."

Jesse Iliff, of the South River Foundation, finds some strange algae on an anchor.
Credit Brendan Reynolds

The pollution diet was created by the EPA in 2010 in cooperation with bay watershed states. It imposed pollution limits and set federal penalties for non-compliance. It’s been credited with signs of improvement after decades of failed clean-up efforts.

And even thought the improvements have been slow in coming, Iliff says, "you gotta take into account the degradation of the Chesapeake and the South River."

"It’s taken centuries and it’s going to take more than just a few years to pull it all back together."

But if the Chesapeake Bay Program shuts down, as President Trump has proposed, so does the pollution diet as well as some $73 million worth of research, water monitoring efforts and clean-up projects—projects like one at the headwaters of Church Creek, once the most polluted South River tributary.

It receives the water loaded with oil, heavy metals and road salt that roars off the parking lots of three Annapolis area shopping centers and nearby highways after rain storms. And that water slices into the banks, carrying off sediment as well.

Nancy Merrill, outreach coordinator for the South River Federation, an advocacy group, calls that sequence "the downfall of suburban streams."

The $1.6 million restoration project created seven broad step pools that slow the flow of the water and filter it through plants so that by the time it reaches the river it has left behind most of the mess and the dirt.

Merrill says when they started on the project three years ago they could only find five fish in the whole stream. They found nearly 400 in a recent survey. Most of them were minnows, she says, but also "there were some perch, there was some bluegill and sunfish, eels and golden shiners."

Merrill says they restored five species of underwater grasses that help filter pollution, green heron, blue heron, bald eagles and what she called "a ton of deer."

But that’s just one of some $12 million worth of similar projects in Maryland and $47 million worth throughout the six states in the Bay’s watershed, according to Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

And those projects "would just go away," she said. "Nothing more happens, unless, somehow Maryland would magically be able to pull that money out somewhere, which I don’t see happening."

Governor Larry Hogan’s press office issued a statement saying he would "fight for the Chesapeake Bay" and oppose "hypothetical cuts at the federal level."

"If any of these budget proposals ever become law or even make into actual legislation as Congress works to develop the federal budget, we will work to address them during the state budget process," the statement said.

Officials in other Bay states had similar reactions.

Delaware Governor John Carney said in a statement he was "frustrated with plans to eliminate the program that helps to protect vital and beautiful areas of our state."

Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, fired off a letter to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, charging that proposed cuts in EPA funding "signal the Trump administration’s disregard" for environmental concerns.

But now that Congress has passed its stopgap spending measure, people like Jesse Iliff can continue monitoring the health of bay tributaries and groups like the South River Federation can work on the projects that stem the tide of pollution into those tributaries; at least until September.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.