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.