Though he said it shouldn’t have been a surprise — Trump has proposed gutting the program each year he has been in office — Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the number still came as a shock.
“This is a program that for years has truly enjoyed broad bipartisan support,” Baker said. “So it makes you ask yourself, what statement is [Trump] trying to make?”
Such a dramatic decrease of support for the federal, state and private restoration efforts coordinated by the program would threaten the ecosystem’s steady yet fragile recovery, Baker said.
However, he added, it’s unlikely the final budget will look the way Trump has envisioned.
Last year, the president wanted to cut EPA funding for the program by 90 percent. The year before, he recommended the same. In 2017, Trump suggested eliminating federal contributions to the Chesapeake restoration effort altogether.
Members of Congress who support the Chesapeake Bay recovery effort have, in turn, rejected the president’s proposals and restored funding. This year, legislators increased the budget from $73 million to $85 million.
Environmentalists and lawmakers have said they expect a similar response this year. But, as always, there are no guarantees.
“There is something more sinister and damaging in working on this, which is that it detracts from the work we and other advocates and members of the House and Senate are doing on other, more important matters,” Baker said.
Scientists say the Chesapeake Bay is the healthiest it has been in generations. The ecosystem is showing signs of resilience and recovery unseen for decades.
Despite record-setting 2018 rainfall that resulted in a D-plus grade on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual report card last year, most metrics indicate the estuary is continually improving.
Fishermen and environmentalists have logged sightings of species, including bottlenose dolphins, that had vanished. Signs of natural resilience and recovery — like thriving underwater grass beds and growing oyster reefs — have returned.
Many who work along the estuary use the same metaphor to demonstrate its growth: The Chesapeake Bay, they say, is like a sick patient in the early stages of remission. Why would you stop the patient’s supply of lifesaving medicine when it seems the treatments are working?
When environmental organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have to focus time and resources on lobbying legislators and crunching budget numbers, Baker said, it detracts from their main mission: restoring the bay.
It also underscores the need for local support from states and cities along the Chesapeake, he said.
The six states and the District have committed to meeting environmental goals, such as improving fisheries, increasing public access and limiting pollution in the bay to target levels by 2025, a restoration plan outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued a public call for the president to reverse course and support the restoration effort, for which Hogan has committed more than $350 million in his budget proposal.
“Maryland is leading the charge to safeguard the Bay — we are simply asking our federal partners to keep up their share,” Hogan said in a statement. “At his confirmation hearing, the EPA administrator said: ‘I am very much committed to the Chesapeake Bay and the Chesapeake Bay Program.’ Instead, the Trump administration recklessly and repeatedly proposes gutting Chesapeake Bay funding.”
Hogan, who chairs the Chesapeake Executive Council — a regional commission that consists of governors of the six states along the Chesapeake watershed, the District mayor, the EPA administrator and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission — added that the effort to protect the bay has long been bipartisan.
“While the Trump administration continues to turn its back on the Bay, we will keep fighting to protect one of our most precious natural assets,” the governor said.
But not every state has been so diligent.
Pennsylvania, which does not border the Chesapeake but contributes a significant amount of agricultural pollution to the estuary via the Susquehanna River, recently released a bay cleanup plan that underfunds by $300 million a program to help farmers adopt anti-pollution practices.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation last month announced it intends to sue the EPA over its refusal to cooperate with mandatory Obama-era environmental programs, including those that decrease runoff and aid restoration efforts. Maryland and Virginia also are considering suing the EPA in an effort to compel it to change course.
“With this continued lack of support from the White House, it is all the more important that state practices and programs and funding all come through to help this restoration effort,” Baker said. “It’s very disturbing to see such a broad-based attack on the very fundamental and environmental principles of our nation.”