Northam and Gillespie (copy)

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (left) and Ed Gillespie

Advocates for a healthy Chesapeake Bay will have the opportunity this week to learn exactly how Virginia’s two candidates for governor, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, plan to advance the bay cleanup.

The candidates will attend a forum in Richmond on Wednesday hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which happens to be marking its 50th anniversary this year.

Perhaps the key bay-related issue they will address is the state’s financial commitment to the long-term effort. This is especially important now in light of threats by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump administration to severely cut or even eliminate federal funding for the cleanup.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has praised the bay program as a fine example of public-private cooperation. But while he was governor of Oklahoma, he also joined the American Farm Federation lawsuit of the EPA over its Chesapeake Bay “blueprint,” citing government overreach. The blueprint establishes waterway pollution limits, the so-called “pollution diet” that the watershed states are responsible for achieving.

Virginians need to be able to count on their next governor to demand continued and consistent federal funding. And both candidates need to pledge that under their watch, the bay will remain a priority in Virginia’s budget—something over which the governor has significant control.

In CBF’s biennial report card for 2016, released earlier this year, the bay’s grade rose from 32 to 34, from D-plus to a C-minus, thanks to overall improvement in the three main indicators: pollution, habitat and fisheries. A grade of 70 will deem the bay saved, while a 100 represents the unattainable pristine condition in which Capt. John Smith found the bay in the early 1600s.

The report suggests:

That farmers are working hard to contain manures and to establish shoreline buffers that filter runoff of nutrient-rich fertilizer; that industries are striving to limit toxic discharges, and; that localities are making progress on water treatment plant upgrades and managing stormwater runoff. As a result, the size and recurrence of algae-fueled, oxygen-starved “dead zones” have been lessened.

That improved water quality is paying dividends in robust growth of subsurface grasses, where baby crabs and other small creatures find refuge from predators, while man-made reefs are bolstering protective habitat.

That crabs, striped bass, oysters and other bay fisheries continue to thrive and ward off disease. For crabs, that means the periodic adjustments to the crabbing season and harvest limits on female crabs are working.

Questioners at the forum would do well to ask the candidates specifically about how they intend to maintain this progress. Their campaign websites suggest that the the bay ranks differently on their priority lists.

If the words “Chesapeake Bay” appear anywhere on the Gillespie for Governor website, they are very-well hidden. The environment, in fact, is not among his top 12 agenda items, though he does include the threat of sea-level rise and recurrent flooding, and touts the Virginia aquaculture industry.

Northam, on the other hand, an Eastern Shore native, lists the bay as second among his environmental concerns, after the impact of climate change on Virginia. He says he supports the bay cleanup and discusses the program’s key aspects, vowing to protect fisheries and stand firm on implementation of the bay blueprint.

The improvements cited here are a matter of record, measured by dedicated scientific researchers and achieved though decades of perseverance and cooperation. Given a healthy bay’s enormous potential for commerce, tourism and recreation, the cleanup ought not be a political issue unless the candidates, based on their level of support, make it one.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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