Advocates look to Biden to help advance Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort

By Timothy B. Wheeler
Bay Journal News Service

Chesapeake Bay

Bald eagles find a perch in a Chesapeake Bay marsh. (Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp)

After having made progress on a number of fronts during a Trump administration that was generally hostile to environmental spending and regulations, Chesapeake Bay advocates say they’re hoping for much more once President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

Topping most advocates’ wish lists: further increases in federal funding for Bay restoration and a reinvigorated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will push states to meet their Chesapeake cleanup obligations by the 2025 deadline.

“We’re coming off an administration that for the last four years pretty actively undermined the effort to restore the Bay,” said Jason Rano, federal director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “What we’re looking for is a recommitment to Bay restoration, to fully implementing the Bay restoration blueprint.”

Shortly after Trump took office in 2017, he proposed eliminating all federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program and the EPA’s other regional waterway restoration efforts. That shook up Bay advocates, who drummed up bipartisan support in Congress to spare the Bay program any cuts in its $73 million annual funding.

“The best thing Trump did for the Chesapeake was to put zero in his first budget for the Chesapeake Bay Program,” said Peter Marx, a former EPA official and congressional staffer who monitors federal affairs for the Choose Clean Water Coalition. Had the White House proposed steep but less drastic cuts, he said, lawmakers might have been inclined to go along.

The Trump administration backed off a bit in subsequent years but called repeatedly for slashing the Bay Program budget 90%. With many Republicans joining Democrats, Congress didn’t cut a penny and instead went the other direction.

In late December, lawmakers approved a federal spending package for fiscal year 2021 that includes a record $87.5 million for the Bay Program, up from $85 million in fiscal year 2020. It also includes $5.8 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office, with additional funding for oyster restoration in the Bay.

Congress also passed other legislation aimed at helping the Bay, including the recent Chesapeake W.I.L.D. Act, which authorizes the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to award grants in the Bay watershed to enhance habitat.

“Despite big headwinds from the Trump administration over the last four years, we’ve actually made substantial progress working on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, who introduced the W.I.L.D. bill. One of its cosponsors was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV, from another Bay watershed state.

Van Hollen said he’s expecting the incoming administration to take a more active role in Chesapeake restoration, especially because the president-elect is from Delaware, also a Bay watershed state.

“He understands the Bay very well, and I expect we will have a partner in the EPA,” the Maryland senator said.

For starters, Van Hollen and other Bay advocates say they hope the Biden EPA will put pressure on Pennsylvania to step up its lagging Chesapeake cleanup efforts. The EPA came under fire in 2020 — and ultimately got sued by several states and the Bay Foundation — for not taking more aggressive action against Pennsylvania and New York after they submitted inadequate plans for meeting EPA-set pollution reduction targets by 2025.

EPA officials have argued that the targets laid out in the agency’s 2010 “total maximum daily load” for the Bay were unenforceable goals.

But critics say that while the EPA has limited options for dealing with a noncompliant state, it didn’t even try.

Nick DiPasquale, who served as EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program director under Obama and under the first two years of Trump’s term, said both administrations actually ignored his advice to “rattle the saber” of its regulatory authority at Pennsylvania.

DiPasquale said that Bay Program staff urged the EPA to threaten making Pennsylvania’s localities conduct costly upgrades of their wastewater treatment plants, facilities over which the EPA has regulatory control. The real aim of such a move would be to leverage the state’s conservative lawmakers to increase funding for reducing polluted farm runoff, a pollution source over which the EPA has no direct authority, even though it is the main source of the Bay’s water quality woes.

Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature has repeatedly balked at doing so, even though the increased funding would also clean up thousands of miles of impaired rivers and streams in the state.

“We’re in the final stretch of the TMDL,” DiPasquale said, “and if EPA is serious about getting the job done, basically they’re going to have to pick up the reins and get the additional reductions Pennsylvania needs.”

Much of what Biden can do for the Bay or the environment, in general, will depend on Congress. Whether control is split between the parties or very narrowly controlled by Democrats will depend on the outcome of a Jan. 5 runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats.

Either way, Bay advocates say they hope there’ll still be bipartisan support in Congress for the Bay. Among their goals: increasing Bay Program funding even more; providing funding for the W.I.L.D. grants and even getting the Chesapeake Bay declared a national recreational area.

Continuing partisan division in Congress, though, could affect Biden’s broader, ambitious agenda for addressing climate change, which he’s said requires urgent action. For starters, the president-elect has vowed to immediately reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, through which nations have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions. Other more substantive steps could require legislation but could help reduce sea level rise and other climate impacts on the Bay, advocates note.

The Biden administration will also seek to reinstate or strengthen many of the dozens of federal environmental regulations the Trump administration has revoked or weakened. Among those topping Bay advocates’ wish lists for revisiting are rules that weaken federal protections for wetlands and streams and strip states of the right to block pipelines and other projects that could harm water quality. Returning rules to what they had been under the Obama administration could take years, but some advocates say this may be an opportunity for further reform.

“It’s not necessarily only going to be about rolling back,” said the Bay Foundation’s Rano. “We believe there may be some opportunities to strengthen what was there before.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal’s associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com. This article first appeared in the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.


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