Funding Cuts Could Jeopardize Bay Health

Funding Cuts Could Jeopardize Bay Health

There is a clear track record indicating the Chesapeake Bay benefits more from federal oversight and specific regulations than it does from crossed fingers and good intentions.

As a region that draws much of its identity, and no small part of its economy, from that estimable estuary, we in Hampton Roads should be horrified by a proposal that would torch the funding and roll back the regulations that have made such a beneficial difference in the bay over the past dec-ade.

President Donald Trump has proposed to essentially eviscerate federal support for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, a drastic 93 percent cut in annual funding, from $73 million per year to $5 million.

This proposal, part of a larger plan targeting the Environmental Protection Agency, is at odds with President Trump’s pronouncement a few days after his inauguration that “I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist.” It is, however, utterly in line with his rhetoric during the election campaign, when he called the EPA “a disgrace” and vowed that when he was done with the agency, “we’re going to have little tidbits left.”

The slashing of federal funds is nothing short of catastrophic to anyone who appreciates what the bay represents to our region and our nation. It is a work of nature’s beauty, the largest estuary in the United States, but that is just the start. The bay’s health is contagious in Virginia and other nearby states. When it is healthy, we thrive. When it is neglected, we feel it physically, emotionally and economically.

In 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Program put the EPA in charge of a regional partnership to clean up the bay, involving state and local government, as well as academic and nonprofit groups, all under federal oversight. The effort largely treaded water until 2010, when a concerted effort began returning the bay to its natural glory. Virginia was one of six states, along with the District of Columbia, that took on the responsibility of developing and implementing plans to restore water quality, with the EPA providing grants and overseeing computer models and other tests to determine what actions could be taken throughout the region.

Seven years later, it looks like a new bay. Jobs have been created by the cleanup process and other jobs preserved for locals who work on the bay. The markedly cleaner water is not only easier on the eyes but healthier to live near. The work is far from done but the news gets better with each evaluation.

That will all change if the president’s proposed budget is implemented. The debilitating attack on bay funding is part of a larger plan that would eliminate 20 percent of the EPA staff, cut grants to states by almost a third, and reduce the agency’s budget by a quarter. None of this comes as a surprise, given Mr. Trump’s statements during the election campaign and given his choice to head the EPA- Scott Pruitt, who in his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general had frequently taken legal action against the agency.

Mr. Pruitt, during his confirmation hearing, “commended and celebrated” the improvements that have been made on the health of our bay, but he also echoed President Trump’s calls for dramatic cutbacks on federal regulation. Rather than having the EPA continue to enforce specific targets for pollution, he said he would have individual states “encourage” healthy activities on land near the bay.
It was this sort of policy- largely based on “the goodness of their hearts”- that allowed the bay to decline into such bad shape to begin with. Without strict federal enforcement, it would only be a matter of time before industrial and agricultural run-off would be contaminating the bay at their earlier levels.

What will happen to the oyster population? It has shown signs of recovering after years of decline due to pollution and overharvesting. Similarly, what will happen with the resurgence of underwater grasses, which are vital habitat for several species iconic to the region, such as the blue crab. In fact, the blue crab itself has increased the health of its own population. What happens if someone pulls the plug on that effort? Jobs are on the line if we compromise the ability of local residents to work on the water and responsibly harvest its bounty.

Times are tough, and no federal budget is untouchable. We have frequently used these pages to call for budget cuts and more efficient spending at the federal, state and local levels. The EPA is not immune to that philosophy.

But when a new president proposes cutting a project’s budget by more than 90 percent, it is not hard to see that priorities have changed. When a cabinet administrator is nominated and approved who has spent years fighting against the agency he now heads, it is logical to speculate that this agency is in the crosshairs.

The Chesapeake Bay is a national and regional treasure. President Trump’s proposed budget cuts reflect an utter indifference, and they portend a return to the days when the bay was so badly abused.

There are elements in our country who dismiss any talk of environmentalism as the fairy tale gobbledygook of unrealistic “tree huggers.” But the threat to our bay is very real and would have long-lasting consequences that would affect our economy, our health and our very way of life.

Reprinted courtesy of the Daily Press