The Chesapeake Bay: Hope for a Clear Future

The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate $73 million in federal funding towards restoring the Bay. If this passes, does the Bay have any chance of becoming healthy?

Originally published here:

 

Martin O’Malley sat in the office of his home in Towson, Maryland. The former Governor of Maryland, wearing a casual black shirt and jeans, which were a stark contrast to his usual suit and tie, was surrounded by awards he’d received during his eight years in office. The majority of those awards were for his environmental actions. A plaque with an oyster shell was awarded to him by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources in 2011 for his work in restoring the oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay. The University of Maryland Center awarded a map of Maryland and the Bay to him in 2014 for his “outstanding work in preserving our nation’s largest estuary”.

“Some of the happiest days of my life were spend on the Bay with my dad and mom,” O’Malley said. “They would often take us down to the Eastern Shore and we’d explore the black water wildlife refuge or just go mucking around on the riverbank.”

As a young boy, O’Malley’s parents were friends with an older couple, the Loathers. An older couple that never had children of their own, they would often take him boating with them on their Miles River property in their small skipper.

“I remember being in the boat with Mr. Loather with my nerdy binoculars on,” O’Malley recalled. “And I remember rounding a cove and quietly Mr. Loather pointed into a semi-shaded part of the cove. Just a few yards from me was this Great Blue Heron staring at me in the eyes.” O’Malley squinted; impersonating the look he gave the heron. “And I looked at him, and he looked at me.”

O’Malley’s Childhood

He sat back in his chair, shifting some papers to the side of a statue of trout given to him for his legislation that monitored the amount of trout fished in the Bay.

“The Bay was a place where I became aware of nature and all of its elemental wildness, fragility and purity,” O’Malley said. “As Governor of Maryland, it was clear to me that one of my top responsibilities was to safeguard and improve the health of this estuary because it is improving the health, security, and prosperity of the people of Maryland.”

While Governor, O’Malley’s administration focused on improving pace, scale and coordination of the actions taken by the people of Maryland on land. They created actions and funding mechanisms to reduce all four major source pollution from the land: agricultural, wastewater, stormwater, and septic systems that leech into the water table.

“In Maryland we have consumed more land in development over the past 30 years than we’ve consumed in the first 350 years,” O’Malley said. “The big environmental chance in the Chesapeake Bay over the last eight years was the change in the understanding of the most populous species that relies upon her lands and waters, and that is human beings.”

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O’Malley visits a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay

The O’Malley administration established performance management systems throughout the Bay to track it’s health and restoration. BayStat was created, a website that tracked and mapped out restorative actions on land through geographic information technology.

“The goal in all of this was to reach a healthier Bay tipping point by 2020,” O’Malley said. “And a lot of scientists believe we reached that health tipping point laster year, so I’m pretty pumped about the future of the Bay. Not withstanding the ignorance of the current occupant of the White House.”

***

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A map of the state of Maryland. Source: Chesapeake Bay Commission

The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest estuary, and holds six states within its expansive watershed and is home to over 17 million people. The Chesapeake Bay was created over 35 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the lower part of the Dalmarva Peninsula and created a crater that is now the Bay. Native American tribes over the centuries inhabited this area, and their farmland benefited from the freshwaters of the Bay. In 1524, Italian captain Giovanni da Verrazano is the first recorded European to enter the Bay, and returned to Europe with his findings.

The Chesapeake Bay was the entry to where the colony of Jamestown was formed in 1607. Supplies came on ships through the Bay, and the colony prospered due to the Bay’s plentiful waters of fish and resources. However, the abundance of fishing the depletion of resources deteriorated the Bay. Fast-forward 358 years to the 1960s, and the Chesapeake Bay was on the brink of death. Due to overfishing and pollution from agriculture and the Industrial Revolution, very little life remained in the Bay. The dead zone threatened not only the biodiversity of the Bay, but the watermen whose careers and lives relied on the Bay’s waters.

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Watermen collecting oysters in the Chesapeake Bay Source: Maryland Department of the Environment

At the end of the 1960s came the push for the U.S. government to prioritize the environment after the popularity and debate of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”. Rachel Carson, while studying for her Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, also wrote about the health of the Chesapeake Bay for the Baltimore Sun during that time. In 1967, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was formed to protect and restore the health of the Bay. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was signed in an effort to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters” through regulating pollution.

Within this Act, government funding was put towards the Chesapeake Restoration Program in 1983. This program, led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created policies in the states within the watershed to ensure the restoration of the Bay’s health and provided government incentives as well as subsidies.

The main goal of the restoration program in the Chesapeake Bay was to prevent this pollution from running off into the streams. Through federal funding, grants are provided to farmers who plant trees that line their farms. These trees act as a buffer zone for pollutants, and their roots filter and capture the bacteria so that only clean water is runoff into the neighboring streams. The grants provide incentive to the farmers to participate in these programs, and the farmers receive money to offset the costs and planting of the trees.

However, without federal funding, the incentive to create these buffers that filter the pollutants disappears as well. The personal cost to a farm would far outweigh the benefits that the farmer would directly receive. If federal funding is completely eliminated, the push for buffer areas would decline dramatically, and pollutants within the Bay would be expected to increase once more. Today, $73 million in federal funding are allocated to this program.

But this program is on the verge of being completely eliminated. In March 2017, President Trump proposed in his new national budget to eliminate all federal funding for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. This funding, which supports state efforts in allocating pollution sources away from potentially running off into streams that flow into the Bay. The administration has stated that the costs of the project outweigh any improvement that has occurred.

***

 

Mark Hoffman, Maryland Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission (CBC) was surrounded by paperwork. Charts, graphs, letters to representatives, all lay strewn across a conference table. The room was lined with file cabinets, each holding specific press releases from years all the way back to 2008.

The CBC is a commission between Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that work with the legislative bodies of each Bay state to create policies and legislation in efforts to conserve and restore the estuary and watershed.

“What I’m really passionate about is doing a good job,” Hoffman said. “I want to be able to be proud of and stand behind my work and projects.”

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Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Source: Maryland Department of the Environment

When it comes to the elimination of the $73 million, Hoffman was on the front lines when the proposal was established.

“There’s a series of regionally based initiatives under the EPA, where areas have been identified of critical importance and critical water quality,” Hoffman said. “There’s about 473 million in these regional initiatives and the $73 million towards the Bay was proposed to be eliminated to zero.”

The $73 million goes towards program support, such as the salaries of staff, the goal implementation team, and people who monitor the water for data. Federal funding also funds 12 million grants that have gone towards restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay.

“If we’re going to remove the Chesapeake Bay from the impaired waters list, we have to focus on the water quality,” Hoffman said. “But how we get there and the role of the EPA is what is getting called into question.”

The $73 million in federal funding isn’t the only money going towards the restoration project. In the fall of 2016, the total spending that went towards the Chesapeake Bay and project such as restoration was $536 million, more than seven times what federal funding is given.

However, the $73 million is allocated mostly towards Bay monitoring, where different nitrogen and phosphorus levels are measured throughout the watershed and tracked based on the health of the Bay.

“The EPA and the monitoring program does a lot of work and they’re providing funding to the states to do this,” Hoffman said. “So that $73 million is critical to continue the Bay restoration.”

The health of the Chesapeake Bay affects the economies of all the states within its watershed. Maritime industries are the backbone of the state of Maryland, and commercial and recreational fisheries span throughout the waters. The Bay also boosts other markets such as real estate, whose profits plummet when the Bay isn’t healthy due to the poor view from waterfront houses.

“The Bay program is a shining example of a collaborative effort both across the states and the federal government,” Hoffman said. “The key thing about the Bay program is that it’s a partnership.”

Hoffman’s recommendation to the Trump administration would be to keep the funding in place in order to continue monitoring. The Bay restoration effort has been worked on for the past 40 years, and each year people have a better understanding of how to improve the Bay further.

“We’ve stopped the ball from rolling downhill,” Hoffman said. “But if we don’t keep pushing it’s going to roll back down and crush us. So we need to keep up the effort in place.”

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An interactive map of the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Source: Martin O’Malley

***

The Chesapeake Bay is a source of life not only for the people that live within its watershed, but for billions of organisms both on land and within its waters. The Bay is known for its fishing industry, which harvested clams, striped bass, oysters, and the famous blue crabs. This seafood, once abundant, was on the verge of extinction in the 1960s due to overfishing and pollution.

The main source of pollution in the Bay was due to runoff from nearby cities and farms. In Maryland, the chicken industry brings in more money than tourism, and accounts for a large portion of the state’s economy. Massive chicken farms are built along the Eastern Shore, with a direct line to the Chesapeake Bay. The chickens produce large amounts of fecal waste, and when it rains it is carried off down streams and into the Bay. In addition, more than 11 million people obtain drinking water directly from these rivers and streams that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

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Information of the health of the Bay. Source: Martin O’Malley

When organic pollutants like these are introduced to the Bay’s waters, it causes algae to eat the bacteria and grow, causing algae blooms. The blooms rest on the top of the Bay’s waters like a film, and prevent sunlight from reaching further down in the water to plants such as seaweed. The algae also absorb the dissolved oxygen in the water, which fish and other marine organisms need in order to survive. The algae film, absorbing most sunlight and dissolved oxygen, leads to the death of marine plants and to the suffocation of marine organisms. This creates a dead zone, virtually void of all life.

The Trump administration has stated that the cost of environmental projects and regulations hinder economic growth and are considered anti-business. The regulations, which prevent industries from dumping pollutants into the Bay or neighboring streams, have heavy fines for any company that goes past the amount of pollutants dumped allowed by the EPA. This has caused many industries to adapt more expensive filtering methods of pollutants, which leads to a dent in profit.

When calculating the industries that are dependent on the Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation calculated that the Bay generates $33 billion a year worth of economic activity. Much of this economic intake would be impossible if the Bay were to become polluted again. The value of waterfront homes on the Bay would decrease due to the polluted waters they would border, and a dead zone would stop almost all fishing.

Due to high levels of fecal bacteria that would result from no more federal funding towards reallocation, the pollutant levels of the Bay would be considered unhealthy and dangerous for any human contact. This would cause a dramatic decrease in recreation within the Bay, including all water activities as well as boating.

If these levels of pollutants become high enough, the streams that lead to the Bay would no longer possess safe drinking water, causing 12.75 million people without a source of drinking water. This would cause the government to allocate money and resources towards filtering these waters, which could cost far more than $73 million a year.

***

O’Malley shifted in his seat, leaning forward with his hands pursed together at the fingertips. Outside, the sun was slowly moving down behind the trees, and black crows could be seen returning to their roost. Behind O’Malley, a campaign poster with his name written in a cool blue leaned against a shelf. In 2016, O’Malley ran for president against Hillary Clinton as well as Donald Trump.

“Here’s the danger about the Trump administration and their new director of EPA Scott Pruitt,” O’Malley said. “Those $73 million that go into the Bay is a significant federal commitment to the ongoing cleanup and restoration of the Bay. It is however only a fraction of all the dollars we are putting into restoring the health of the Bay.”

When roughly divided up among the states, the loss of federal funding to the state of Maryland would be about $20 million.

“If you compare it to how much we are doing in Maryland, it’s a cut that we could easily backfill,” O’Malley said. “It becomes more difficult to politically backfill those dollars when you get further away geographically from the Bay’s waters.”

States such as Pennsylvania, whose state is only partly within the Chesapeake watershed, have struggled with putting a designated fund towards the Bay due to the lack of impact it has on over half of its residents.

In Maryland, a dedicated fund source is taxed on people in order to provide the Bay restoration with enough money to treat the issues. A surcharge on wastewater bills has been implemented for the past decade, and this funding allowed the state to upgrade its wastewater treatment plants. Because of this, the end product that comes out of the pipe into the Bay is significantly cleaner than past decades. Over 55 wastewater treatment plants have been addressed, but this is a struggle for states like Pennsylvania who lack the legislation imposed to create a dedicated fund source.

Because of this lack of dedicated fund source, Pennsylvania relies heavily on federal funding in order to achieve Bay restoration in their area.

“By cutting funding altogether, what the Trump administration shows is that they don’t want us to continue to succeed in this cleanup,” O’Malley said. “Scott Pruitt himself led 21 different states and their attorney generals in suing the Chesapeake Bay Program, the EPA and other states. He attempted to derail the plan that we entered into voluntarily with the Obama administration to measure performance openly and transparently based on the best science.”

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Oysters on the Bay

Despite the obstacles faced with federal funding, O’Malley’s hope for Bay restoration is high. The oyster aquaculture program was been a success in replenishing the overfished oyster population. Oysters act as natural filters in the Bay, and create more natural flows of nitrogen. For the first time in eight years, the oyster aquaculture is leased to different watermen who rotate in growing and harvesting oyster beds to prevent overfishing. Now, over twenty percent of the Bay floor is oysters.

“I travel to other countries and they’ve all heard about what we’re doing in the Bay,” O’Malley said. “There are so many things we can do on improving the environment and improving the health of our water and air that no short term administration can stop us from doing, and that’s true on climate change and water. Just because we’ve lost leadership from the White House doesn’t mean we need to lose American leadership.”

O’Malley leaned back, grabbing his iPad, which he keeps on hand most of the time to read articles or to prepare his speeches. He flips through with his fingers a few times before coming upon an article written by the Baltimore Sun. The article was about the increase in Bay grasses along the Bay floor, and how the health within the Chesapeake Bay continues to improve.

“A friend of mine sent me this article recently about the Bay grasses coming back, and he’d worked with me in state government,” O’Malley said, laughing to himself. “And he said to me ‘It’s remarkable to me that they can write these articles without giving your administration a lick of credit for putting in place all of the actions that made it possible.’ And I said ‘Yeah and you know what? The little boy in me doesn’t care. I feel like Elliot seeing ET’s darkened heart light up again.’ And that’s the way I feel about the Chesapeake Bay.”

 

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