Oyster Sanctuary Bill finds Support in House of Delegates

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The House of Delegates voted 102-39 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would keep intact existing oyster sanctuaries on the Chesapeake Bay, a blow to the commercial fishing industry’s efforts to expand the state’s oyster fisheries.

Supporters and opponents of the bill, named the Oyster Management Plan, are both saying that their solution is best for the long-term health of the bay and its oyster population, which helps clean the Chesapeake by filtering nutrients like excess algae out of the water column.

“(The Oyster Management Plan) protects the fragile progress that has been made to date in recovering oyster populations,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in written testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Feb. 24. “This bill would in no way impact (the Department of Natural Resource’s) ability to manage the public oyster fishery, including the development of rotational harvest management for public oyster bottom.”

Bill opponents, such as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, disagreed, saying that harvesting in the sanctuaries is vital to maintaining existing oyster stock in “idle” areas.

“There’s this idea that the sanctuaries would be generating all this oyster larvae,” coalition spokesman Chip MacLeod said to the committee on Feb. 24. “That larvae does no good unless it has a clean, hard bottom to strike. One of the things that doesn’t work with the oyster sanctuary theory is that we don’t have clean, hard bottom (around these sanctuaries).”

Opening parts of the sanctuaries to commercial use, MacLeod said, would remove aging oysters whose environmental usefulness had subsided, and free up space for oyster larvae to flourish.

The Department of Natural Resources, the agency that controls the sanctuaries, opposes the bill.

Opponents point to a 2010-2015 study conducted by the Oyster Advisory Commission, a Natural Resources department subsidiary, that concluded that there is “justification” to adjust current sanctuary boundaries.

“There are sanctuaries that are known to have poor habitat and/or very low densities of oysters,” the advisory commission’s study report said. “If the ultimate goal is to have more oysters in the water, then some areas that are currently sanctuaries could contribute to this goal and provide economic and cultural benefits to fishing communities.”

Conversely, a bill enacted in 2016, the Sustainable Oyster Population and Fishery Act, mandates that the Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, conduct a study to adopt a science-based fishery management plan by 2018. Supporters want to see this study concluded before allowing the department to entertain any ideas of opening sanctuaries to harvest.

Opponents contend that doing so undermines the efforts of the department and its advisory commission.

“The (Oyster Advisory Commission) is doing all of this good work, because the prior administration wouldn’t adopt a management plan,” Delmarva Fisheries Association chairman and waterman Rob Newberry told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Newberry told the Environment and Transportation Committee that the bill would “kill” the management plan adopted by the commission.

Supporters of the bill contend that oyster populations have not recovered enough to sustain themselves without protection.

Citing a self-commissioned poll that found 88 percent of Marylanders support sanctuaries and a 2016 Department of Natural Resources report that found oysters are thriving inside designated sanctuaries but not outside them, the bay foundation said in a press release, “Sanctuaries are Maryland’s insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state’s oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce.”

The bill was voted on favorably with a couple amendments by the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Tuesday before it moved to the House floor. The amendments would prevent anyone from using the bill to block any sanctuary projects.

The bill is expected to be heard by the Senate in the coming weeks.

By Jack Chavez

Trump bid to Axe Bay Restoration Funding draws Fire

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President Donald Trump’s budget outline proposing to defund the Bay Program and slash other programs aiding the Chesapeake restoration drew expressions of dismay this week from those engaged in the long-running effort, along with vows from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to resist such deep cuts.

Trump’s proposed spending plan, if enacted, would eliminate funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program Office — from $73 million last year to nothing in fiscal 2018. It would be part of a recommended 31 percent reduction in the budget for the agency, with only the State Department targeted for deeper cuts.

The White House’s budget blueprint also called for sharp decreases in other departments and offices that have contributed to the Bay restoration effort, without giving details of how those might play out in specific programs or initiatives. The administration is planning to release a more detailed spending plan in May.

Environmentalists promptly denounced Trump’s fiscal plan, warning that it could cripple the Bay restoration effort and reverse the gains seen in recent years.

“If this program is eliminated, there is a very real chance that the Bay will revert to a national disgrace,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker, “with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shellfish, and water-borne diseases that pose a real threat to human health.”

Earlier this year, driven by improvements in blue crabs and other fisheries, underwater grasses and water quality, the Bay Foundation gave the estuary’s ecological health a grade of C-minus, the highest score given in nearly two decades. The CBF report card mirrored recent assessments of modest progress reported by the Bay Program and the University of Maryland.

While the Trump budget has alarmed some Bay advocates, many have noted that Congress, not the president, has the final say on federal spending. They said they hoped that lawmakers would reject the proposed cuts.

The federal government’s support of the Bay cleanup over more than three decades has helped to develop a “world-class expertise” in managing large ecosystems, which in turn has inspired and guided other restoration efforts, said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“It’s just unconscionable that Congress would let that all slip away by terminating it,” Boesch said in a telephone news conference arranged by the Bay Foundation.

Several members of Congress representing portions of the Bay watershed pledged to fight to maintain the Bay Program funding. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-MD, called Trump’s proposal to eliminate it “wrong and outrageous.” And he questioned how that squared with Trump’s campaign pledge to build the nation’s economy and create more jobs.

“The Chesapeake Bay creates $1 trillion in our economy,” Ruppersberger said, across the six-state watershed. “These are jobs in fishing, farming, boating and tourism.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, a member of the Senate’s Budget and Appropriations committees, issued a statement saying the proposed cuts “seriously damage our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay — and threaten the jobs that depend on a healthy Bay ecosystem.”

And Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, one of the Bay’s staunchest advocates in Congress over the years, called on the body to “quickly reject” Trump’s budget “before the absurdity of his cuts . . . causes ripples of uncertainty and fear across the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed economy.”

Members of Trump’s own party joined Democrats in challenging the Bay Program cuts, though generally with less saber rattling. Reps. Andy Harris, R-MD, whose district borders the Bay, and Rep. Scott Taylor, R-VA, whose district covers portions of Hampton Roads and the Virginia Eastern Shore, indicated that they would try to keep federal funds flowing to the restoration effort. Both had joined three other Republicans and 12 Democrats from Bay watershed states in a letter to the White House more than two weeks ago urging it to keep the current funding of $73 million next year.

“We do not support reductions in the cleanup,” said a spokesman for Taylor. A spokeswoman for Harris issued a statement saying he would work with the Trump administration to “to prioritize programs within the Environmental Protection Agency that would preserve [the] Bay cleanup effort.”

Their support for the Bay restoration effort is significant because both sit on the House Appropriations Committee, which in coordination with the Senate panel on which Van Hollen serves, will draw up the actual federal spending plans.

Even so, Trump’s spending blueprint presents a challenge, as it calls for the federal government to back off from environmental efforts like the Bay restoration. “The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities,” explained a summary of the president’s budget that was posted online.

Also targeted for elimination was federal funding for restoration of the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and other compromised watersheds.

That view of the federal role in the Bay’s restoration represents a radical shift from the stance taken by every president since Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 declared the Chesapeake a “treasured national resource.” Reagan called for a sizable boost in the EPA’s budget, in part to begin “the long, necessary effort” to clean up the Bay. The Bay Program, which operates as a partnership between states and the federal government, was created the year before, when the EPA administrator signed the first of several agreements pledging to work with the Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to deal with pollution degrading the estuary’s water quality and fish populations.

Funding for the EPA’s Bay Program Office has ticked up or down from year to year, but has increased overall since then. Along the way, Congress wrote the Bay Program into law, spelling out the EPA’s responsibilities to coordinate the efforts of other federal agencies and of the states in reducing pollution and restoring the estuary’s living resources. Jon Mueller, the Bay Foundation’s vice president for litigation, said he thinks that the federal government can’t legally walk away from its statutory obligations to support the Bay Program. But he acknowledged that other legal experts believe Congress can’t be compelled to fund programs like this, even if supposedly required by law.

The White House’s proposed elimination of Bay Program Office funding comes despite praise that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt lavished on it during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. Under questioning from Cardin, Pruitt called it “something that should be commended and celebrated.” He pledged to enforce the Bay pollution reduction plan EPA had worked out with the states, and to see that the effort continued to get federal resources.

Asked how Trump’s budget blueprint squares with Pruitt’s Senate testimony, an EPA spokeswoman emailed a statement saying it “reflects the President’s priorities of preserving clean air and water as well as to ease the burden of costly regulations to industry. Administrator Pruitt is committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with states to fulfill the agency’s core mission.”

The loss of $73 million for the Bay Program would be significant in itself, but the impact of Trump’s overall proposed EPA budget cuts would go far beyond that, as the agency spent an additional $121 million on other water-related grant programs in the watershed last year, some of which may also face cuts. The largest of those is the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which made $102 million in low-cost loans to states last year for projects that improve water infrastructure.

While not facing outright cuts, the revolving loan fund would likely have less money to spend in the watershed. The Trump administration would end a $498 million grant program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture that pays for improvements to rural communities’ water and wastewater infrastructure. Instead, the budget would have rural areas compete for the EPA funds — so the money available for water infrastructure would effectively be spread among a larger group of communities.

Although the most severe cuts would fall on the EPA, other federal departments that play a role in Chesapeake Bay restoration also face double-digit reductions. Altogether, federal agencies provided $536 million for Bay-related projects in 2016, helping to fund everything from wastewater treatment plant upgrades and farm runoff controls to oyster reef construction and wetland restoration.

In the budget plan, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture faces a 21 percent cut, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 16 percent, and the Department of the Interior 12 percent.

In many cases, the budget provides little detail about how hard various programs would be hit, but the Interior Department’s land acquisition money, which has been used to help purchase sensitive areas around the Bay in recent years, would be slashed.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $250 million would be cut from grants supporting coastal and marine management, research and education. Among the areas slated for elimination is NOAA’s Sea Grant program, which provides about $4 million annually in Bay-related research and education efforts.

In that context, the EPA’s Bay Program funding accounts for just about 14 percent of the annual federal spending on the Chesapeake. But the Bay Foundation’s Baker called it a “linchpin” of the overall restoration effort. Roughly two-thirds of the $73 million in this year’s budget goes to state and local governments in the form of grants to aid their cleanup efforts. The rest supports things such as water-quality monitoring to measure the efficacy of cleanup efforts, computer modeling to help inform cleanup plans, and the activities of nonprofit groups to encourage public engagement in the restoration. (A portion of Bay Journal funding comes from a Bay Program grant.)

Environmentalists said cuts in EPA funding would hurt the ability of states to carry out a wide range of environmental programs, including those related to the Bay.
“Essentially they are saying they are going to turn over more authority to the states, and then cut the amount of money for the states to do it,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection echoed that concern in a letter it sent to Pruitt on Thursday, which said the state agency relies heavily on federal funding to implement air and water pollution control programs.

Cutting the EPA Bay Program funds, the DEP said, would hurt the state’s ability to pay for pollution control efforts on Pennsylvania’s farms, where the state has tried to focus its lagging nutrient control efforts.

“These budget cuts do not reduce any of the responsibilities that DEP has to the people of Pennsylvania, but does decrease the resources available to fulfill those responsibilities,” DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote. “These cuts, if enacted, would harm businesses seeking permits, and harm residents’ clean water, air, and land.”

CBF’s Baker said he’s worried that the loss of federal funds may result in a loss of “political will” in state houses and city halls to increase spending. And UM’s Boesch noted that much of the federal largesse for the Bay restoration effort comes in the form of matching grants.

“If the federal funds go away,” Boesch said, “the thought that we could go back and get state governments to double or triple investments is just naïve, given the budget issues they’re dealing with.”

Even if, as many expect, Congress dismisses Trump’s budget as too extreme, environmentalists said they worry it could give lawmakers cover to slash environmental programs much more than they have in the past.

“The real danger here is not that Congress will approve these numbers, it’s clear that they won’t,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The danger is that people start taking it seriously as a point of negotiation.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship contributed to this article.

Bill may Ban Foam ‘to-go’ Carriers from Food Businesses in Maryland

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All expanded polystyrene products used for packaging food products, including foam carriers, could be banned from all Maryland food businesses if pending legislation is passed in the General Assembly this session.

The legislation, sponsored in the House by Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, will prohibit a person or business from selling or providing food in an expanded polystyrene food service product beginning Jan. 1, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The bill, which has also been cross-filed in the state Senate, also bans the sale and use of loose fill packaging.

The fiscal analysis defines the banned material as “a product made of expanded polystyrene that is used for selling or providing food.” This means the bill would ban food containers, plates, hot and cold beverage cups, meat and vegetable trays and egg cartons made of expanded polystyrene.

“Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the generic industry name for the white rigid material made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam and pressure to bond the beads together to form blocks or to shape molds,” according to Universal Foam Products.

Styrofoam, a registered trademark and a type of expanded polystyrene, is not included in the bill, according to the Department of Legislative Services report. “Although foam coffee cups and plates are often referred to as ‘Styrofoam®,’ that terminology is incorrect,” the fiscal analysis said. Styrofoam is generally used in industrial settings for building materials and pipe insulation, according to the report.

Lierman said in a Feb. 15 House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing that this bill is an extension of a concept that has already been enacted in some areas. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, the city of Gaithersburg and the city of Takoma Park have prohibitions on expanded polystyrene already in place.

Dr. Richard Bruno, a doctor of medicine who works at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gave written testimony Feb. 15 in support of the bill, saying styrene, a chemical found in expanded polystyrene, is a threat to health, waterways and ecosystems.

Delegate Al Carr, D-Montgomery, said it is important to make this a statewide ban because it is a statewide issue and the ban has been successful locally.

“Businesses and government agencies have been able to adapt and have not seen an increase in their costs,” Carr said. “I have been receiving many emails from constituents in favor of the bill.”

“It is important to make it a statewide ban so that the prices of alternative products go down,” Lierman told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. Lierman pointed to California, saying when businesses there made the transition to stock alternative recyclables the prices changed. “(Expanded polystyrene) is now more expensive than recyclable products in California,” Lierman said.

Restaurants, fast food restaurants, cafes, supermarkets or grocery stores, vending trucks or carts, movie theaters, and business or institutional cafeterias would all be food service businesses affected by this bill, according to the fiscal analysis.

“Enacting a statewide ban on polystyrene foodservice packaging will level the playing field for businesses across the state,” Nick Rudolph, President of Pigtown Main Street in Baltimore, said in his testimony to the House committee.

Dart Container Corp., a national company that manufactures cups, plates, containers, lids and straws made from such materials as expanded polystyrene foam, solid polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, paper and sugar cane, opposes the bill.

Dart employs 630 Marylanders with another 50 open positions in high-paying, rural manufacturing jobs, according Paul Poe, Government Affairs and the Environment Manager at Dart. Poe said Dart is also planning to open a third facility in the state, in Havre de Grace.

Poe specified in testimony that expanded polystyrene is recyclable and Dart has created a program to accept expanded polystyrene items and recycle them with drop-off and pick-up options.

Delegate Christopher Adams, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said in the House committee meeting that Dart’s stance on the bill should be considered. Since the company creates jobs for Marylanders, the state should do no harm to the company, Adams said.

“This bill is our hope for a cleaner and healthier future, to neighborhoods with less toxic trash, air and water,” Claire Wayner, a high school junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore County and founding member of Baltimore Beyond Plastic, an organization created to teach students the problems with plastics like polystyrene and elevate their reactions against it, said in her Feb. 15 testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

“At Baltimore City public schools, lunch is served on polystyrene trays, and as many students are economically disadvantaged, it’s not possible to refuse a lunch … when it may be your only food you’ll see that day,” Wayner said.

“Baltimore City schools serve daily lunch on EPS trays to 83,000 students a year,” according to a Baltimore Office of Sustainability Feb. 15 letter.

“Using compostable paper trays, plates, and other containers in place of EPS would make food recovery efforts much more feasible, because users can simply place their tray and all leftover food directly into a compost container, rather than having to separate out trash and compost,” the organization said in its letter.

“Around 1 percent of the trash properly disposed of and sent to landfills is expanded polystyrene, but up to 40 percent of litter found in and along water streams is expanded polystyrene,” according to Lierman. “That shows the disproportionate amount of (expanded polystyrene) that is recycled and littered.”

Prince George’s County Department of the Environment Director Adam Ortiz told the House committee it costs $60 per ton to process expanded polystyrene food products, but when they are able to compost the alternative recyclable products, they make money.

Baltimore City, Caroline, Howard and Washington counties accept polystyrene plastics for recycling, but the rest of the Maryland jurisdictions do not, according to the analysis.

“Growing up in neighborhoods that are full of trash, it’s hard to not self-identify with the image of trash,” Wayner said in her testimony.

“Forcing businesses to use alternative products does not reduce litter; it simply changes in composition,” Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association said in a Feb. 15 letter to the committee.

Lierman said that she understands people who litter with foam containers will probably continue to litter with alternatives, but the alternatives are better for the environment and easier to pick up than the expanded polystyrene products.

There are also health risks for consumers who use expanded polystyrene containers, according to Lierman. When expanded polystyrene is heated, it leaches styrene into the food or liquid that is in the containers, Lierman said.

“Styrene, the main ingredient in (expanded polystyrene), has been listed as a possible carcinogen by both the International Agency for Research on cancer and the National Toxicology Program since 2002,” Bruno wrote in his testimony.

“The general public is exposed to 20 mg of styrene annually,” according to Bruno. “This toxin has no place in our bodies, schools, restaurants or homes.”

But the American Chemistry Council referred to a 2013 study completed by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group in its Feb. 15 written testimony that said “current exposures to styrene from the use of polystyrene food contact products remain extremely low, with the estimated daily intake calculated at 6.6 micrograms per person per day.”

“This is more than 10,000 times below the safety limit set by the FDA,” the organization said. “The FDAs acceptable daily intake value of styrene is calculated to be 90,000 micrograms per person per day.”

The fiscal analysis said the effect on small businesses and the state will be minimal. There will be an increased cost to the state of $19,300 in the 2018 fiscal year in order to conduct the education and outreach campaign, but will decrease to zero after one year.

“County health departments must enforce the bill’s prohibitions and may impose a penalty of up to $250 on violators,” according to the fiscal analysis. Health departments must issue a written notice of the business’ or person’s violation and allow three months to correct the violation before a fine can be issued.

By Cara Newcomer

Maryland’s Veteran Crab Manager Fired after Watermen Complain to Hogan

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Maryland’s veteran manager of the state’s blue crab fishery was fired this week after a group of watermen complained to Gov. Larry Hogan about a catch regulation that they contend hurts their livelihood — but that scientists say is needed to ensure a sustainable harvest.

Brenda Davis, crab program manager for the Department of Natural Resources and a 28-year state employee, said she was informed Tuesday that her services were no longer needed.

In an interview Wednesday, Davis said DNR Fisheries Director Dave Blazer gave no reason for her summary dismissal. But it came after Hogan met last week with about a dozen Dorchester County watermen who had been pressing Davis and the DNR for a change in a long-time regulation setting the minimum catchable size for crabs.

“I was totally shocked. It was totally unexpected,” Davis said yesterday. “I was really surprised and a bit disappointed, given my time there, that re-assignment wasn’t an option, because I think I’m going to be short on being able to do full retirement.”

A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment. A DNR spokesman likewise said officials would not comment on a personnel matter.

For the last two years, a small but vocal group of Maryland watermen in lower Dorchester County have been asking DNR managers to allow the catch of smaller male crabs. The department has the flexibility to change regulations if conditions warrant, and they rely on an annual winter dredge survey of crabs to determine the size of the crab population and how much fishing pressure it might sustain.

The smaller crab size is part of a suite of restrictions in effect since 2001, Davis said, when managers sought to reduce the crabbing effort by 15 percent because the population was showing strain. During the first part of crabbing season, watermen can legally harvest male crabs if their pointed shells are at least 5 inches across from tip to tip. That minimum size is in effect from April 1, when the season opens, until July 14. On July 15, the minimum catchable size increases to 5 ¼ inches.

That seemingly slight increase gives male crabs more time in the water to molt and grow. It also significantly increases their chances of mating with female crabs so they can sustain the Bay’s population of the iconic crustacean, according to Tom Miller, a crab scientist who is director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Blue crabs are the Bay’s most valuable fishery, and landings by Maryland watermen — which reached 26.7 million pounds in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available — have a cumulative dockside value of tens of millions of dollars.

But in 2008 the crab population and harvest dipped so low that the federal government issued a disaster declaration for the fishery, and Maryland and Virginia regulators alike imposed tighter catch limits, aimed primarily at protecting females so they could reproduce and rebuild the stock. Crab numbers have rebounded to more sustainable levels, and some of the restrictions have been eased.

Dorchester watermen have lobbied both the DNR and the governor’s office for the change to 5 inches change. Davis said the Dorchester contingent said it was willing to negotiate, but the likely harm to the crab population from easing the rule was deemed so great that the options for offsetting the impact — closing the crab season early or starting later — were “not attractive.” The Dorchester watermen were not interested, Davis said.

When Hogan met with the group of about a dozen watermen last week, they again expressed their disappointment. Scott Todd, a leader in the Dorchester County watermen community and second vice president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, attended the meeting. He said the watermen told the governor that the DNR, and Davis in particular, were not willing to meet them even part way.

Todd said the male size regulation was “devastating” to watermen in Dorchester County, because smaller crabs are the only ones running in their area that time of year.

He said they had offered to accept some sort of compromise, such as letting watermen continue catching 5-inch crabs for another six weeks, until the end of August. And then they dropped the request to just four weeks. Again, Todd said, the answer was no. It was, he said, just one “bang-your head-meeting [after] another.”

Todd said the governor seemed surprised about the rancor, but “he just said, ‘I’m listening.’”

Hogan, a Republican, had run on a pledge to end what he called his Democratic predecessor’s “war on watermen,” and he has made changes in the past based on their concerns. Responding to watermen’s call for change, the Hogan administration shook up the DNR, reassigning the manager of the department’s oyster fishery and restoration efforts and firing the fisheries director. Watermen had complained about both.

Then in late 2015, three watermen met with Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford to complain about a federally funded oyster reef restoration project in the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore. Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton subsequently asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold up the project while DNR staff reviewed it and other restoration efforts. After a year, the project was eventually restarted.

Todd said in an interview that he thought that the Dorchester watermen had offered reasonable compromises.

“I never had anything personal against Brenda,” Todd said. “I don’t want to see anyone fired, but if she had to go to make the lives of 4,000 or 5,000 people a little bit better, I don’t see that we didn’t have a right to complain about it.”
The DNR has not announced any changes to the minimum size limits.
Charles County crabber Billy Rice, who chairs the DNR’s Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission and has been involved in blue crab policy for decades, said the data from the annual winter dredge survey showed that changing the minimum catchable size would harm the crab population, and would not bring watermen any overall economic benefit. Many watermen like harvesting larger crabs, because they fetch better prices and more income.
The DNR’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee, which includes watermen, recommended against the Dorchester-based pleas to change the rule because the conservation givebacks required to make up the difference were so extreme they would have harmed the whole industry, Davis said.

In an interview Wednesday, Rice said he sent an email to Hogan’s deputy chief of staff, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, expressing his “great disappointment” at Davis’s firing. He said Davis went above and beyond to help commercial watermen and processors.

“Brenda was a great person, and a great employee, and this was a simply a case of shooting the messenger,” Rice said.

Thomas O’Connell, the fisheries director who was fired in 2015, said in his experience at the DNR, any decision on whether to change crabbing regulations would have to be approved by Davis’s supervisors, including the current fisheries chief, Blazer, and the DNR secretary.

O’Connell said Davis “brought an incredible level of transparency to blue crab management.” The winter dredge survey numbers don’t come out until April, which is late to make changes for the season because it begins April 1.

So, he said, Davis would begin to meet with the industry while the survey was progressing, and ask them what they would like to see if the population reached certain targets. It allowed them to manage based on their preferences should there be an abundance, within reason, and prescribe the pain that might be coming if there was a shortage. On the table were issues such as size, gear and length of day. It took a lot of time and required a lot of night meetings and occasionally long drives, O’Connell said, but Davis was always willing to do it.

“I have observed her commitment and sacrifices over the years to ensure that Maryland blue crabs are managed sustainably,” O’Connell said. “And then a couple of watermen can have a meeting with the governor and turn around and really screw up her life.”

Asked about her greatest accomplishment in 28 years at DNR, Davis said it’s been the relationship she helped build with the crabbing industry through the dredge survey and data-sharing.

“That survey put us on the watermen’s boats, and we have fostered a much better relationship with the industry. They have a much better understanding of what we do, and we have a much better understanding of what they do,” she said.

Of the minimum crab size rule, she added: “It was a department decision. I just got to be the person to say it.”

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

Bay Grass Restoration Threatened by Warming, Scientists Say

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The Bay region is unlikely to meet its underwater grass restoration goals unless it clears up the Chesapeake’s water beyond what is now targeted, scientists warned in a recent journal article.

If more action is not taken, they warn that eelgrass — the primary underwater grass species found in high-salinity portions of the Bay — may face a “catastrophic” decline in the Chesapeake because of a combination of warming temperatures and murky water.

As a consequence, they predict populations of blue crabs and many other fish will also decline as areas with once-lush grass beds convert to muddy bottoms. They project that the resulting economic impacts from that loss of habitat could reach $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion annually.

Nor is it only a problem for the future, the scientists said in a paper published in the journal Global Change Biology in early February. Over the last half-century, eelgrass has been eliminated from nearly half the area it once occupied in the Bay. It rebounded slightly in the late 1980s, but since 1991 — a period when grass beds have come back in many other areas — eelgrass acreage has declined 29 percent.

“It is happening now, and it is happening rapidly,” warned Jonathan Lefcheck, a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and lead author of the paper.

Underwater grass beds are one of the most critical habitats found in the Bay. They provide shelter for juvenile crabs and fish, as well as food for waterfowl. They also protect shorelines from the erosive force of waves, and help filter sediment and nutrients out of the water.

Like all plants, underwater grasses need sunlight to survive. In the wake of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, grass beds suffered dramatic declines as the Bay filled with sediment and nutrient-fueled algae blooms, hitting a low point of 38,000 acres in 1983.

Since then, grass species in general have made a comeback in many places, reaching 92,315 acres throughout the Chesapeake and its tidal rivers in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s about half of the Baywide goal of 185,000 acres, which is based on observations made in the decades prior to Agnes.

Eelgrass, though, has declined. That’s a concern because unlike grass species that thrive in the low-salinity waters of the Upper Bay, eelgrass is the only seagrass that can survive in much of the lower, saltier Chesapeake. In most high-salinity areas of the Bay, there is nothing that can take its place. The paper pins eelgrass loss on two factors: loss of water clarity and warming water temperatures.

In many of the eelgrass-dominated areas, water clarity has generally worsened since 1997, the paper says. Eelgrass was once commonly found at depths of more than 1 meter, but murkier water means plants no longer get enough sunlight to survive at such depths.

Meanwhile, gradually warming water temperatures are adding stress to the plants, which are near the southern edge of their range in the Bay. Eelgrass does not tolerate hot temperatures and it suffered sharp diebacks after hot summers in 2005 and 2010.

In effect, scientists say, poor water clarity is squeezing eelgrass into shallower areas, but those are also warmer.

Further, there is not enough shallow water habitat available to restore historic levels of underwater grass in high salinity areas where eelgrass is the dominant — and typically only — species, says David Wilcox, a data analyst at VIMS who was a co-author of the paper.

“Unless we get the deep beds back, it would be hard to drive that up,” he says. “It is hard to imagine getting that deeper grass without the clarity that would support that.”

Scientists say they expect further decreases if past trends continue. The paper says that the impact of warming temperatures alone in the next 30 years would lead to a further 38 percent decline in eelgrass cover. Similarly, if water clarity trends in the Lower Bay remain unchanged, eelgrass would decline 84 percent. If both trends continue, 95 percent of eelgrass beds would be lost in the Chesapeake in 30 years, the paper says.

Such a loss would reverberate throughout the ecosystem, as there is no other species that would fill the void, resulting in declines of blue crabs, silver perch and a host of other species highly dependent on grass beds in the lower Bay.

“If you’re a guy who wants to take his son fishing on the weekend, you can expect a lot fewer fish out there,” Lefcheck said. “The eelgrass habitat is going away, so all these critters are going to have no place to live.”

Scientists also worry that a catastrophic loss may not be decades away. Eelgrass suffered huge diebacks in the aforementioned hot summers: 55 percent after 2005 and 41 percent after 2010.
In both cases, the beds rebounded, but scientists say that likely would not be the case if there are two consecutive hot years — the odds of which increase as average temperatures continue to rise.

The reason eelgrass might die back permanently with a prolonged hot spell stems from the method by which it reproduces. It has root-like structures called rhizomes, which produce new shoots that spread over the bottom, but if the plant is killed in late summer, when water temperatures are at their warmest, the rhizomes die too.

Eelgrass beds also produce seeds in the spring, which can still produce a recovery the following year even if the plants die during the summer. But if a plant-killing heat spell hits for a second year in a row, neither the seeds nor the rhizomes would be available to spur a comeback in the third year.

In fact, that appears to be what happened at an eelgrass restoration site in the Piankatank River during two consecutive hot growing seasons in the early 1990s, says Bob Orth, a longtime underwater grass researcher at VIMS and co-author of the paper.

“Because there were no seeds, in that third year there were no plants left in the Piankatank,” Orth says, noting that the eelgrass has been largely absent from the river since. “We had an open window into what could happen if we had significant Baywide heat events back-to-back.”

The paper has significant implications for Bay cleanup efforts. Chesapeake Bay water clarity standards are designed to return underwater grass abundances similar to those observed the mid-1900s throughout the Bay. Meeting those clarity requirements requires nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions to ensure that enough light reaches grasses to allow their return.

But, scientists say, those clarity goals never accounted for the impact of warming temperatures on eelgrass.

Eelgrass can withstand “moderate increases in temperature,” the paper says, but only if water was clearer than in the past, so plants would not have to work as hard to get energy from the sun — thereby offsetting some of the stress on the plant caused by the heat.

“We’re pretty certain that if we want eelgrass to return to its previous habitat, you are going to have to get more clarity,” Orth says. “It is a physiological fact.”

Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office, says that before water clarity standards can be changed, scientists need to determine just how much clearer water would need to be to support the eelgrass restoration in the face of warming temperatures. Then, he says, the state-federal Bay Program partnership would have to determine whether those goals are achievable.

“We may have to rethink what is possible in a Chesapeake that is going to have warmer summers in Virginia’s portion of the Bay,” Batiuk says.

That sets up a tough choice for the region, he added, because losing eelgrass in the Lower Bay would have consequences for the entire ecosystem. For instance, juvenile crabs that find shelter in eelgrass beds later spread throughout the Chesapeake.
“One change there can reverberate around the system, not just in Virginia itself, because it is such an integrated system,” Batiuk says.

Besides Lefcheck, Wilcox and Orth, other authors on the paper include Rebecca Murphy of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Scott Marion, of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

By Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. 

Annapolis: Deforestation, Fracking Bills Spark Rallies before Hearing

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Support for forest protection and opposition to hydraulic fracturing sparked two different rallies Wednesday, just before the House Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony on three related bills. 
 
Two of the bills would ban and criminalize hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The other would require developers to replant an acre of trees for every acre of forest they clear.
 
All three bills force lawmakers to confront issues that feature business interests on one side and environmental protection interests on the other. 
 
Activists organized a “Fight for the Forests” rally less than an hour before the committee’s Wednesday afternoon meeting. The rally attracted supporters from all over the state.
 
“Under the Forest Conservation Act currently, the way the replacement values work, it guarantees that development is going to operate at a net loss of forest,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff attorney Elaine Lutz told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “(Under the current regulations) developers are subject to minimal planting requirements … that essentially comes out to one acre replanted for every four acres cleared—if that.”
 
Maryland has lost 14,480 acres of forest over the last eight years, according to data provided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“The FCA does not cover all forest in Maryland,” Lutz said. “It typically covers the areas that are in our urban and suburban communities, and those are the forests that are the most susceptible to being lost to development without replacement.”
 
The majority of acres cleared and lost comes from the district of Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, who is sponsoring the bill. In Prince George’s County alone, more than 9,000 acres were cleared and less than 2,000 were replanted during the same time span, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s data.
 
The committee also heard testimony on Wednesday from Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, and numerous supporters and opponents of a pair of bills that would ban and criminalize the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Maryland.
 
A couple dozen supporters of legislation banning fracking congregated outside the House of Delegates office building Wednesday afternoon. They held signs and banners and waved at drivers passing by, many of whom waved and honked at them. 
 
A state moratorium on fracking is set to expire in October. With that deadline approaching, legislators in both Maryland’s House and the Senate have introduced bills that would permanently ban the practice in the state.
 
“This session is the last chance for Maryland legislators to step up and protect the health, environment and tourism economy from the dangers of fracking once and for all,” Jackie Filson, field communications officer for D.C.-based consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We’re looking to House delegates to act now and support (these bills) for a permanent, statewide fracking ban.”
 
Lawmakers and activists seek to not only ban fracking in the state, citing concerns about environmental effects, but criminalize the practice, for further deterrence, under a separate bill. 
 
“If you frack in Maryland, you will go to jail (under the bill). That’s a completely different message than (writing a check) to make the problem go away,” Fraser-Hidalgo said.
 
Some of the individuals who oppose a fracking ban say that the people against the process are people who by and large aren’t from the areas where hydraulic fracturing would take place.
 
“I represent exclusively the area where fracking would occur,” said Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett and Allegany. “This country has been fracking since 1947, and it’s been a real game changer. Folks in the rest of the state (who are for a ban) don’t fully understand (the benefits). 
 
Beitzel said last week he feels the concerns over health and environmental risks are overblown, and that the regulations Maryland would impose on fracking businesses are more than enough to mitigate any potential hazards.
 
“The ban is overkill,” Beitzel continued. “The anti-fracking publicity in itself has hurt tourism to Western Maryland more than (actual drilling) could.”
 
By Jack Chavez

Irish Firm Brings Renewable Energy to Eastern Shore Poultry Industry

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Bob Murphy’s Double Trouble Farms may be the most cutting-edge poultry operation on the Eastern Shore right now.

But the significance of the farm in Rhodesdale, Maryland, is not the poultry itself. It’s the technology used to repurpose chicken manure.

CNS-BAY-POULTRY002wThe Maryland Department of Agriculture and Irish agri-tech company Biomass Heating Solutions Limited, or BHSL, have committed nearly $3 million toward manure-to-energy technology that they hope will significantly reduce the impact of Murphy’s chickens—and perhaps one day all Eastern Shore poultry—on the Chesapeake Bay.

“Our main objective is bird enhancement,” BHSL project engineer James O’Sullivan told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We want to completely diminish ammonium (from Murphy’s chickens to the bay). We want to reduce humidity (in the chicken houses) and have a drier atmosphere for the birds, hence drier manure.”

The project was completed and went online in December. While O’Sullivan oversees the equipment on the farm, BHSL runs it off-site.

“The whole system is fully automated,” O’Sullivan said. “It is controlled by our remote operations team in Ireland.”

The farm houses more than 160,000 chickens—a large number, no question—but a fraction of the 300 million “broilers,” or chickens bred specifically for meat production, that the USDA says the state produces annually.

O’Sullivan says the chickens on Murphy’s farm can produce as much as 10 tons of manure a day. When left on the ground, the manure finds its way into local waterways and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

The phosphorus and nitrogen in livestock manure are essential to healthy ecosystems, according to a 2004 report released by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In excess, however, these natural plant nutrients cause “explosive” growth in algae and other underwater plants, which stifle other forms of life in the bay.

BHSL utilizes a process called fluidized bed combustion, which works by heating a bed of sand inside a fuel combustion chamber until bubbling at 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Once this level is reached, manure is fed into the chamber and the temperature is raised to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. This process produces hot gases, which in turn are used to boil water that ultimately heats the chicken houses.

Not only does the process heat the chicken houses with clean, renewable energy, it keeps the manure off the ground and out of the waterways.

Livestock manure has long been one of the sources of bay pollution that the state Department of Agriculture seeks to diminish, but implementing environmentally friendly policies while preserving industries vital to local economies has been difficult.

“We can’t lose poultry on the Eastern Shore,” Murphy said. “People are looking for ways to save it, and that’s my goal.”

Murphy sees this technology, which his farm and BHSL began working on three years ago, as a means to clean the bay while preserving a vital economy.

“Right now we’re transporting manure (to other nearby farms for fertilizer),” Murphy said. “But eventually those fields, which didn’t have manure before, will get caught up and experience the same problem.”

“Somewhere along the line, we have to get rid of this manure,” Murphy added. “If you can burn eight to 10 (tons) a day, that’s manure that doesn’t go on the fields.”

Murphy says he hasn’t heard any opposition to the project locally, and others in the poultry industry have met the project with approval.

“The economy around here is driven by chicken farms,” said Bruce Boney, a former IT contractor for Perdue Farms. “If they’re trying to make an effort towards cleaner water, I think it’s positive work.”

O’Sullivan is quick to note that BHSL is not bringing technology to the United States that doesn’t have a track record. In fact, the company first implemented their fluidized bed combustion chamber units in the United Kingdom in 2003, and today run eight different units on six different farms there.

One of the main byproducts of the process is fly ash, and O’Sullivan says BHSL is determining a market for it. Specifically, BHSL is in talks with composting and phosphorus leaching companies, he said. Fly ash’s value comes from its phosphorus, potassium and carbon content.

If the project goes well, O’Sullivan said, there are plans to bring the technology to nearby Bellview Farms, another poultry farm Murphy owns. Bellview houses twice as many chickens as Double Trouble Farms.

Manure-to-energy technology has the potential to reshape how farms handle excess manure not only in Maryland, but the rest of the country, especially the other bay-watershed states.

“Maryland is literally creating the blueprint (for dealing with excess manure in waterways),” Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder said last month.

Maryland’s commitment toward the project, $970,000, comes from the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Waste Technology Fund. Grants from the fund are awarded based on an applicant’s ability to meet a variety of requirements, according to the department’s Office of Resource Conservation program manager Louise Lawrence.

“(We run) a competitive (application process) annually. Proposals are evaluated based on responses to requirements,” Lawrence said. “We have approved funding for six projects to date. These projects vary in cost from $300,000 to $1.4 million.”

Other projects include:

–$150,790 to Green Mountain Technologies Inc. to repurpose horse manure at Days End Farm in Woodbine.
–$237,520 to Green Mountain Technologies Inc. to repurpose dairy cow manure at Iager Farms in Frederick County.
–$350,302 to Veteran Compost and O2 Compost to repurpose horse manure in Davidsonville.
–$676,144 to Planet Found Energy Development to repurpose poultry manure in Berlin.
–$1.4 million to CleanBay Renewables to construct and operate an energy-to-manure plant that will benefit farms in Somerset County.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Bartenfelder, and individuals from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Perdue Farms, and the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are among a list of guests who are scheduled to visit Double Trouble Farms on Monday.

 

By Jack Chavez

Maryland Senate Votes to Override Hogan Clean Energy Jobs Veto

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The state Senate voted Thursday morning to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2016 veto of the Clean Energy Jobs bill, 32 to 13, after the House voted 85 to 51 Tuesday to override the measure.

This law, dubbed the “Sunshine Tax” by Hogan, will change the requirement for renewable-energy sources in Maryland’s electricity supply from 20 percent by the year 2022 to 25 percent by the year 2020.

“This legislation is a tax increase that will be levied upon every single electricity ratepayer in Maryland and, for that reason alone, I cannot allow it to become law,” Hogan said in a veto letter to Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. on May 27.

The governor wrote that the percentage increase is laudable, but increasing taxes is not the correct approach.

Multiple environmental groups in the region have supported the legislation, saying it would help the environment and the economy.

James McGarry, Maryland and Washington, D.C., policy director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said to call the bill a tax is a misnomer, saying it is rather a requirement that the state should uphold.

“With the override, Maryland will increase its commitment to clean energy,” McGarry told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “It will not only stimulate energy, but also create jobs and have enormous health benefits.”

“There is support across party lines, rural, suburban areas,” McGarry said. “It’s clear this isn’t a partisan issue.”

Delegate Kathy Szeliga, R-Harford and Baltimore counties, said in a press release this bill will cause Marylanders’ electric bills to increase.

“Working families and retirees cannot afford to foot the bill for the lofty goals of the Democrats in Annapolis,” Szeliga wrote in the release. “This is one more reason for grandma and grandpa to move to Florida and have more than enough savings to fly up to Maryland to visit the grandkids.”

A Department of Legislative Services 2016 fiscal analysis of the bill, the state anticipates an “increase of between $0.08 (per megawatt-hour) to $0.32 (per megawatt-hour) in 2017,” where the average residential customer uses about one megawatt-hour per month.

“Poll after poll, Marylanders are willing to invest in the future of clean energy,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Raettig called the bill a job creator with benefits to the environment and the economy.

Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery, referenced a 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report that states there are 7,279 solar jobs in Maryland.

Maryland saw a 42 percent increase in solar jobs in the past year and could see about a thousand new solar jobs each year going forward, according to Feldman. He said the jobs created are high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, called the jobs produced from collecting renewable energy the “blue collar jobs of the 21st century.” He compared oil in Texas and coal in West Virginia to renewable energy in Maryland.

Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s, said placing the burden on ratepayers is not the right way to accomplish Maryland’s renewable energy goal.

“It’s just not the right program,” Hershey said Thursday on the Senate floor. “It’s not the right program for Marylanders and not a program that warrants increased compliance.”

Miller said the override of the governor’s veto shows that the environment is very important to Maryland and the legislation is moving the state in a progressive direction.

After both chambers’ votes, the bill will become law in 30 days.

During Thursday’s session, the Senate also voted against the override of Senate bill 910, a bill that would establish a Maryland Education Development Collaborative, 0 to 45. Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, encouraged the Senate to vote against the override, saying he plans to write a new bill.

The Senate approved to move the readings of Senate bill 540, which would regulate Morgan State University housing, to Mar. 7 and Senate bill 907, which would require the state and the Maryland Transportation Authority to finance a replacement for the Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge, to the 87th day of session.

By Cara Newcomer

State Legislatures face Vexing Budget Issues for Environmental Policy

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Fracking, renewable energy, sewage overflows, pollution trading, oysters, cownose rays. These contentious topics, and more — some with implications for the health of the Chesapeake Bay — awaited legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia as they returned to work in this month.

Each state has a slightly different menu of environmental legislation to consider. But funding — or the lack thereof — for Bay restoration efforts looms as a common hurdle for lawmakers in Annapolis, Harrisburg and Richmond. The three key Bay watershed states face revenue shortfalls ranging from $400 million to $1.7 billion each, and spending cuts appear likely in the near term to close those gaps.

Environmental activists worry that if Bay-related programs and projects are not spared, the restoration effort could lose steam at a critical juncture. The “pollution diet” imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is due for reassessment this year, and the new president is far less likely than his predecessor to play an assertive federal role in pressing the states to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake.

As a result, the Bay cleanup may be more dependent than ever on what the states do. But with one possible exception, they seem headed toward yet another round of belt-tightening.

Maryland must find a way to make up a revenue shortfall of about $400 million for the next fiscal year — though budget forecasters are warning that state coffers may be short a combined $800 million over the next two years.

While acknowledging that spending has to be cut somewhere, Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, points out that state environment and natural resources agencies are already overstretched. “Any law is only as good as the implementation,” she says. “So we need to take a critical look at the budget in terms of staffing and enforcement.”

Virginia officials likewise confront a revenue gap of nearly $800 million over the next two years, under the state’s biennial budgeting process. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal for 2018 envisions eliminating the projected deficit through a combination of “saving actions,” improving revenues and some fund transfers.

But conservation funding may take a hit if McAuliffe’s savings are approved. The governor’s 2018 budget proposal includes about $10 million to pay for the installation of pollution-preventing best management practices on farms, down from the previous appropriation of $61.7 million. And there’s no money proposed for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which gives matching grants to local communities for projects to curb polluted runoff.

“Despite a difficult budget situation, it is disappointing to see any budget that rolls back investments in Virginia’s farms and localities,” says Rebecca LaPrell, Virginia director of the Bay Foundation. She argues that “stable funding is crucial for the successful restoration of Virginia’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.”

Del. Scott Lingamfelter, a member of Virginia’s delegation on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents the legislatures of the three states, shares the CBF’s concern and vowed to work with other lawmakers to maintain funding for farm best management practices. “We’ve made tremendous progress in that area, particularly around livestock stream exclusion,” says Lingamfelter, a Republican representing parts of Fauquier and Prince William counties in Northern Virginia. “That’s an important strategy for us to follow.”

Pennsylvania faces a $600 million budget shortfall it must deal with in the current budget year, and a projected revenue deficit of $1.7 billion as it plans for the next year. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he intends to take care of those yawning fiscal gaps through spending cuts and efficiency moves. After trying without success in his first two years to get the GOP-dominated legislature to approve income or sales tax increases to close chronic deficits, the Democratic governor has sworn off a third attempt — though he still wants a tax on the Marcellus Shale gas industry.

In mid-December, Wolf made his first round of cuts worth $100 million, eliminating thousands of vacant state government jobs — including more than 400 positions in the departments of Environmental Protection, and Conservation and Natural Resources. The DEP budget is 40 percent smaller now than it was 14 years ago, according to David Hess, who was then the DEP secretary and is now a political consultant in Harrisburg.

But there’s hope in some quarters that Pennsylvania lawmakers may be finally moving to break from years of cost-cutting. A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers this month renewed a push to raise environmental cleanup funds through a new fee on large water users. The five Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Chesapeake Bay Commission — four Republicans and one Democrat — sent a letter Tuesday to their colleagues in the House and Senate outlining the need for a cleanup and advocating the water fee as a remedy. The proposed fee — 1/100th of a cent per gallon on all withdrawals exceeding 10,000 gallons per day, and 1/10th of a cent per gallon for all consumptive uses of more than 10,000 gallons per day — would raise an estimated $245 million annually, proponents say.

“Clean water is fundamental to public health and our economy,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, almost one quarter of Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers are not safe for either drinking, swimming, fishing or aquatic life.”

The letter accompanied a report, titled “Water Rich & Water Wise,” which lays out the extent of the state’s pollution woes and makes the case for levying the water use fee to fund the cleanup. The money would be distributed statewide to help with stream and river cleanups in the Susquehanna, Ohio, Gennesee, Delaware, Erie and Potomac watersheds.

Water fee legislation was first introduced last year by Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, and by Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. The measures have drawn support from legislative leaders, including Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

It’s going to be challenging, Alloway says, to shepherd a dedicated water fee measure through the legislature amid the state’s fiscal woes. But he believes there is sufficient support to pass it if an agreement can be hammered out on how to raise and spend the funds.

Here, state by state, are some of the key issues and challenges facing lawmakers and environmental policy officials:

MARYLAND

Fracking: A joint legislative committee has put a hold on a proposed regulation from the Hogan administration that would permit natural gas drilling in Maryland using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Activists who contend fracking poses unacceptable risks to human health, air, water and the global climate want a permanent moratorium instead.

An EPA report last year concluded that drilling activity in other states has resulted in well contamination and surface water pollution. Gov. Larry Hogan has said he favors gas extraction if it can be done safely, contending it would provide a boost to economically depressed Western Maryland. Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles asserted that the rules his department drew up last year offer a “platinum” level of safeguards for public health and the environment.

Renewable Energy: Hogan has outlined an environmental agenda for the legislative session that features a proposal to invest $41 million in renewable energy projects, increase financial incentives for buying electric vehicles and underwrite a “green energy institute” to attract private investment and commercialize clean energy in the state.

Before lawmakers deal with those, though, they’re likely to vote on whether to override Hogan’s veto last year of a bill that would increase the state’s renewable energy goals. The Clean Energy Jobs bill, which passed by a wide margin, would have committed the state to get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, up from the current goal of 20 percent by 2022.

Hogan, who ran for office on a pledge to lower taxes, criticized the bill as a kind of tax increase on electricity ratepayers, saying they would have to pay more for power generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources.

Lawmakers also face calls to restrict the siting of renewable energy projects. The Maryland Farm Bureau has objected to the placement of large solar arrays on productive croplands on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere, and the Maryland Association of Counties wants to require the state Public Service Commission to consider local wishes in deciding whether to approve such projects.

Pollution Trading: Hogan wants lawmakers to let him divert $10 million from the state’s Bay Restoration Fund to help kick-start the state’s stalled nutrient pollution trading program. The money would be spent on projects aimed at reducing Bay pollution from unregulated sources, such as farm runoff. The reductions would be credited to counties and municipalities so they wouldn’t have to reduce as much nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff and septic systems, two particularly costly and difficult sources of pollution. And the transactions, the first since the state began working on the trading program in 2007, would help create a market for pollution reduction credits that farmers and wastewater treatment plant owners could earn and sell to others needing to reduce their nutrient discharges.

Prost, the Maryland director of the Bay Foundation, said that while many environmental groups support pollution trading in concept as a way to reduce cleanup costs, they have serious questions about the Hogan administration’s plan, especially if localities are given no-cost ways to duck their responsibilities under municipal stormwater permits that require them to reduce polluted runoff.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, part of Maryland’s delegation to the Bay Commission, said state lawmakers have many questions about the proposal. Even if he likes the answers, he’s not keen to take that much money out of the Bay Restoration Fund. “You’re taking money from a fund that was intended for other purposes, upgrading sewage treatment plants,” says Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. “There are a lot of smaller plants that still need upgrading.”

Forest Conservation: Maryland has been losing thousands of acres of forest annually to development, despite a 26-year-old law meant to conserve a land use that helps reduce water pollution. The CBF is calling for legislation to strengthen the state’s Forest Conservation Act, so that every acre cleared would have to be replanted, and that fees developers can pay in lieu of replanting would be increased to provide greater incentives for them to spare woodlands from the bulldozer.

PENNSYVLANIA

Lawn Fertilizer: Pennsylvania may finally join Maryland and Virginia in restricting the content and application of lawn fertilizer. Senator Alloway, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation in the last session, said he’s gotten support from key committee chairmen and has won over opponents from the farming community, who worried that the measure somehow might affect their crop fertilization.

The bill would mirror laws adopted by the Bay watershed’s other two major states in restricting the nitrogen and phosphorus content of lawn food sold in retail stores, and in barring homeowner applications from Nov. 16 to the end of February.

Regulatory Rollback: Environmental advocates say they’re bracing for bills aimed at relaxing or rolling back state laws and regulations. Rep. James R. Santora, R-Delaware County, is expected to re-introduce a bill he sponsored last session to grant developers more leeway from current stream buffer requirements. Another bill that didn’t pass last session but will likely return would let large commercial and industrial businesses opt out of the state’s energy efficiency program.

Matthew Stepp, policy director for the environmental group PennFuture, says advocates fear the legislation could eviscerate a state program that has funded significant reductions in energy demand.

State Amphibian: Pennsylvania high school students are working to officially name the Eastern hellbender, a large, increasingly rare salamander that is an indicator of clean stream health, as the state’s official amphibian. “The hellbender is Pennsylvania’s largest amphibian,” notes Harry Campbell, state director of the CBF. “They’re dwindling, but they’re found in our most pristine waters, and they’re particularly sensitive to sediment pollution.”

VIRGINIA

Pollution Trading: Virginia officials want to tweak the state’s nutrient trading program to ensure that there’s a way to allow for nutrient discharges from new and expanding businesses. The issue came to the fore with the groundbreaking last year for a big new Chinese-owned Vastly paper and fertilizer plant on the James River.

“If the states — Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia — want to continue to grow and prosper, there has to be space for business development,” says Del. Scott Lingamfelter. The Republican lawmaker said it’s a tension built into the enforcement of the Bay pollution diet, known as a total maximum daily load, which sets a limit on how many nutrients can be discharged into the Bay. Environmentalists, though, say they are keeping a wary eye on the issue.

Sewage Overflows: Lingamfelter said that he hopes Virginia lawmakers will join him in seeking more oversight on cities correcting their routine sewer overflows. Environmental advocates and residents are debating the adequacy of Alexandria’s long-term control plan, which would fix three combined sewer outfalls into the Potomac River relatively quickly but leave a fourth in place for years to come.

Oysters: The aquaculture boom has generated friction with waterfront landowners, particularly in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach, where improving water quality has drawn oyster farmers to one of the state’s busiest waterways. Dredging to maintain navigation channels, once routine, has drawn protest from oyster farmers concerned about siltation. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission attempted to mediate the dispute last year, but failed to forge an acceptable solution.

By Tim Wheeler

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.