County officials packed the Performing Arts Center at the Ocean City Convention Center at 9:00 am to receive an update on the health and restoration progress of the Chesapeake Bay during the 2018 MACo Summer Conference. The “Clear Water: The State of the Bay” panel was held on August 17, 2018, and included perspectives State, federal, and environmental perspectives.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles discussed the improving water quality of the Bay watershed while taking a “glass half full” approach. Water quality has improved and the overall size of the annual oxygen “dead zone” has decreased. Maryland remains a leader in Bay restoration efforts and the State has spent over a year developing its Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP). Looking forward, Grumbles stressed the need for a multi-pronged strategy that includes: (1) holding our partner Bay states responsible for their water pollution, especially Pennsylvania which is 37 million tons behind on nitrogen reductions; (2) focusing resources on the agricultural sector and reducing sewer overflows; (3) addressing the pollution coming through the Susquehanna River and Conowingo Dam by creating a separate Conowingo WIP; (4) incorporating climate change into the WIP; and (5) getting the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address air pollution generated by out-of-state coal power plants.
Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton addressed ecological and recreational improvements made to the Bay. Belton noted that he sees waterways cleaned of debris, improving fishery health, conversation law enforcement taking place, navigation channels open, and better water recreation access. Belton highlighted five initiatives/programs supported by the Administration of Governor Larry Hogan, including: (1) the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund; (2) Program Open Space; (3) the Rural Legacy Program; (4) the Waterway Improvement Fund; and (5) the Climate Leadership Academy.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost concurred with Grumbles, noting that Bay restoration efforts can be viewed as a “glass half full.” Prost stated that in 1982, scientists said that the Bay was dying. Now people view the Bay Restoration effort as a model program. Prost stressed that success is happening because of collective action, including by local governments, and that the 2-year Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) milestones have been critical in focusing efforts. Prost noted that Maryland has been meeting its milestone goals overall but falls short on addressing urban/suburban stormwater runoff. Prost several needed actions going forward, including: (1) supporting the Maryland Department of the Environment’s water quality certification requirements for the Conowingo Dam; (2) engaging with Pennsylvania and the EPA to get Pennsylvania to meet its TMDL goals; (3) stable funding levels at the state and federal level; (4) better financial strategies for stormwater projects; (5) more technical assistance; (6) more oysters through both aquaculture and the use of sanctuaries; and (7) more trees through stream buffers and a strengthened Forest Conservation Act.
National Association of Counties Environment, Energy and Land Use Associate Legislative Director Julie Ufner closed the panel by providing an overview of recent federal actions affecting Bay restoration. Ufner noted that while President Donald Trump had proposed a dramatic decrease for federal Bay restoration funding, Congress has disagreed and allotted $73 million for Bay cleanup efforts. While Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler continues to work on rewriting the “Waters of the United States” definition under the Clean Water Act, the federal District Court of South Carolina just issued an injunction against Trump’s hold. That means the controversial 2015 rule will go into effect in 26 states, including Maryland. (Countersuits are very likely.) Ufner noted that midterm elections may upend a lot of congressional priorities. Current legislation contains a provision prohibiting EPA from spending funds to enforce the Bay TMDL but that provision could be cut from the final bill. Finally, Ufner noted that currently the House version of the Farm Bill has a provision limiting local governments from regulating pesticides.
Maryland House of Delegates Environment and Transportation Committee Chair Kumar Barve moderated the panel.