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What Do You Think? Defunding the Chesapeake Bay Program

Jun 21, 2017 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Kim Coble, Chesapeake Bay Foundation 

If President Trump thinks he is cutting big government by eliminating the Chesapeake Bay Program, he never visited the agency’s office in Annapolis. It’s a few rooms with cubicles.

But the President’s proposal to cut all funding to the program will exact enormous cost. It easily could cause a relapse for a patient who only recently was taken out of critical care. That patient is the Chesapeake. It would mean a return to dirtier water, unhealthy swimming conditions, and fish kills.

What is the Chesapeake Bay Program? It’s an unusual government agency. It’s an arm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, designated to help the Bay. But it does so by being a part of a partnership of six states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, all of whom have entered an agreement to do everything necessary to get our beloved patient permanently released from the hospital by 2025.

The lion’s share of the agency’s 2016 budget of $73 million did not go to its modest office. It flowed through in the form of grants to help states in the Bay region, local governments, universities, nonprofits, and community groups to clean up their local waters, and to restore the habitat of Bay critters.

On the Eastern Shore, for instance, the Oyster Recovery Partnership got a $114,850 grant from the Bay Program to help restore 20 acres of oyster reefs in the Tred Avon River in Talbot County. The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy received $152,074 to help reduce silt running into the river so the oysters wouldn’t be smothered.

In Annapolis, the Spa Creek Conservancy received $192,518 to reduce polluted runoff coming out of the Southwoods community. The Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy received $199,405 to set up volunteer “green ministries” at area places of worship.

The list goes on, with millions of dollars coming to Maryland to save habitat for black ducks, pay farmers to put up fences to keep livestock from defecating in streams, create jobs in the seafood industry, spur scientific and entrepreneurial innovation to reduce the cost of restoring the Bay, and to educate students.

These efforts are the engine that is reversing centuries of decline in water quality and aquatic life in the Bay. The dead zones of low oxygen are shrinking. Underwater bay grasses are at historic healthy levels in many areas. And for the past two years we’ve seen better water clarity than in decades in some areas. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation graded the Bay’s health as a C-minus in its biannual State of the Bay report in January. That’s still way below where we need to be. But it is the highest score we have ever given, and it shows we are finally going in the right direction.

The Chesapeake Bay Program is the glue that holds all this together. Think of it as a large and diverse group working together, organized and funded by the EPA. Like a sick patient, the Bay needs a scientific diagnosis and treatment plan. The Program coordinates water quality monitoring, and computer modeling of Bay health and progress. The agency also tracks how the region is doing to restore fisheries, and the habitat that crabs, fish, and oysters need. In an ecosystem of 64,000 square miles, it is critical to know how the whole system is functioning. No state alone can do this—only the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Program also helps hold all the state and local partners accountable for doing their share of the clean-up. It’s working, with nitrogen pollution falling in nine main tributaries.

All this progress is in jeopardy if the EPA budget for the Bay is eliminated, as President Trump has proposed.

Congress ultimately determines the federal budget. The President’s budget is only a starting point. The worry, however, is that in the deal-making budget process, some of the budget is restored, but not enough to ensure progress continues.

That just doesn’t seem smart— anything less than what the Bay Program has received in years past equates to pulling the plug on the life-saving measures of a patient we love.

Kim Coble is Vice President of Environmental Protection and Restoration at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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