ALL THINGS considered, despite the usual caveat that there’s still a long way to go, the prognosis for the Chesapeake Bay is good and getting better. That means the Bay is inching closer to reclaiming its role as a major and consistent producer of culinary delights while serving as a powerful engine for commerce and tourism.
Perhaps because the cleanup effort is improving so many aspects of the Bay’s health, from shrinking dead zones to growth of submerged grasses, the bay bandwagon is welcoming more people—and politicians—on board, and the facts leave the naysayers struggling to find a reason for their position.
Something we know for sure is that the bay won’t get cleaner unless the tributaries that feed it get cleaner as well. In its biennial “Dirty Waters” report released earlier this year, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality was able to remove 362 miles of Virginia creeks, streams and rivers from its list of impaired waters, bringing the non-impaired total to 6,370 miles.
That’s good news. It’s also important to understand, however, that DEQ is able to monitor only a fraction of Virginia’s approximately 101,000 miles of waterways, and of those that are assessed, more than 70 percent (15,508 miles) remain impaired.
But no matter how skillful scientists are in addressing the Bay’s problems, no matter how cooperative farmers are in preventing nutrient runoff, no matter how diligent local governments are in upgrading sewage treatment plants, none of it happens without money.
In its session just ended, the Virginia General Assembly demonstrated that it understands better than ever how a successful Chesapeake Bay cleanup depends on continued and escalating financial support. The proof is in the fiscal 2020 appropriations:
- $84 million (compared with $35.7 million in 2019) to help farmers implement best management practices, such as erecting fences to keep livestock out of creeks and streams, installing buffers to catch fertilizer and soil runoff, and covering or sheltering chicken and other manure so rain doesn’t carry it into waterways.
- $10 million (in addition to $20 million for 2019) for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which helps communities prevent street and parking lot filth from washing into waterways when it rains.
- $1 million more (a 33 percent increase) for oyster restoration and replenishment, to bolster the fishery’s comeback both as a marketplace delicacy and as a natural filter for bay water.
Meanwhile, the money messages coming from the federal government are mixed, to say the least.
Freshman Second District Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat representing the Tidewater area, has introduced the $455 million Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act. The bipartisan legislation would boost the annual federal contribution to the bay cleanup from $73 million to $90 million starting in 2020, and then add $500,000 to that in each of the next four years.
Several other members have signed on, including Rep. Rob Wittman (R–1st) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D–3rd), as well as a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Maryland.
President Donald Trump has a different plan in his proposed federal budget for fiscal 2020. If he has his way, the current, $73 million federal contribution to the Bay cleanup would be cut by 90 percent, to only $7.3 million. Just to be clear, that’s a reduction of $65.7 million.
In addition to his efforts to water down previous policies on climate change, auto emissions and fuel economy—even endangered species protections—the president has had the Bay project in his crosshairs since the start of his administration.
He tapped Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general joined the American Farm Bureau Federation’s lawsuit against the Bay cleanup, to serve as his first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Before he resigned in disgrace last year, Pruitt’s first proposed EPA budget zeroed-out federal Bay funding altogether.
Pruitt was replaced with Andrew Wheeler, a career-long advocate and former lobbyist for the coal industry. Wheeler has said he cares about the Chesapeake Bay, but if the administration’s first Bay budget under Wheeler’s watch is any indication, he doesn’t care much.
A budget that cuts federal Bay funding by 90 percent? We’re happy to recommend a dead zone for that.