RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – It is one of America’s great bodies of water. The well-spring of drinking water and prosperity for over 17 million people, and testimony to the grit of activists, scientists and regulators who fought to bring it back from the brink of environmental collapse.
Today, however, those same people and their successors say they fear for the world’s largest estuary as never before. They view with alarm President Donald Trump’s plan to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent, and the annual funding expressly earmarked for the bay from $73 million to nothing.
“We need that funding to [keep] the momentum going, to keep the states engaged and everyone else involved in saving and protecting the bay on track,” said Rebecca LePrell, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“The oysters are finally starting to come back, the water is getting clearer all the time,” LePrell said.
“The proposed budget cuts would devastate the gains and investments made in the past, and would significantly curtail our cleanup efforts going forward,” she said.
The 200-mile long estuary, a body where 18 trillion gallons of salt and fresh water meet, was once a riot of birds and fish and crustaceans.
Flowing through six states — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia — and the District of Columbia, it was the stomping ground of Maryland’s famed blue crabs, and source of prized oysters on tables from Cooperstown, N.Y. to Norfolk, Va.
And its bounty was noted as far as the summer of 1608. It was during that summer that John Smith, a founder of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, went in search of much-needed food for the settlement and came back talking of oysters laying along the Chesapeake “as thick as stones” and more sturgeon in its waters “than could be devoured by dog or man.”
But centuries of dramatic urban and agricultural development in the bay’s watershed over the ensuing centuries dramatically altered the Chesapeake for the worse. Urban runoff infused the water with oil and other man-made chemicals, widespread farming and the fertilizers that sustained it led to phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients pouring into the bay, feeding massive algae blooms that choked the estuarine system and imperiled native plants, animals, and even the humans living along the bay’s shores.
The blue crab and oyster populations due to pollution and over-harvesting of their rapidly declining numbers, and the once plentiful schools of mullet, rockfish, trout, and perch disappeared from the transformed the underwater ecosystem.
Against that backdrop, the birth of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, bringing with it the realization that something needed to be done to save the Chesapeake Bay, was a desperately needed turning point in the life of the historic waters.
The question was how to tackle a problem so vast. The states and the District of Columbia tried to collaborate on cleanups, but effective coordination proved daunting, and in the end, they made little headway in blocking the fertilizer-rich nutrient pollution that was causing most of the bay’s ills.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups sued the EPA in 2009 complaining that it had failed to restore the bay’s health under the Clean Water Act.
This led to a settlement in 2010, and the Obama administration unveiling the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan — an effort as bold and long-sighted (it runs through 2025) as it would ultimately prove contentious.
One of the major stumbling blocks to cleaning up the Chesapeake had always been that the Clean Water Act of 1972 gave the federal government no power to effectively regulate farmers directly.
Obama’s plan sidestepped this by setting pollution goals for the bay itself, and then imposing pollution load limits on upstream states, the Total Maximum Daily Load. These limits forced state officials to push their respective farmers — a constituency they previously cratered to because of their political clout — to partner in the restoration effort.
But as happened so often during the Obama years, a bold change in policy didn’t occur without a fight.
For the environmentalists along the Chesapeake Bay, the Obama administration was making a long-overdue effort to fill loopholes in the Clean Water Act. But there were others, who say President Barack Obama as engaging in nothing more than a naked power grab.
Inevitably, that difference of opinion found its way to court.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and several businesses and developers sued the EPA, which had to implement the Obama plan, for allegedly exceeding its authority.
In July 2015, the Third Circuit upheld the legality of the Obama administration action. Then in February 2016, the Supreme Court decided not to take up the case, meaning the appeals court ruling would stay in place.
Now, says Rebecca LePrell, the Trump administration is effectively proposing to “pull the rug out from under” the hard-fought victory, something she contends would have a devastating effect on Chesapeake Bay marine life, local economies and human health.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation opened its first office in Virginia in the early 1980s, and it has been leading local efforts to save the bay ever since through environmental advocacy, education, science, policy, litigation and restoration.
It now has offices in Richmond and Virginia Beach, field staff in Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley, an oyster restoration center in Gloucester and six outdoor environmental education programs across the state, LePrell said.
But for all that, much still needs to be done.
In 2016, the health of the bay was rated a 34 on a 100 scale the foundation calls its Chesapeake Bay Health Index. The rating was up from a 27 on a 100 scale in 2000, but still suggests the massive waterway is in critical condition.
“There is a lot of pollution in our waterways,” said Claire Neubert, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation volunteer.
Neubert has lived on the bay for nine years. She and her husband moved there after being attracted by the bay waters and the recreational opportunities they hoped to enjoy on them.
“I swim. I boat. I crab. I fish. I enjoy the water in lots of different ways,” she said.
But then she started talking about sediment.
“It’s one of the things we have to struggle with,” Neubert said. “Hampton River was dredged a few years ago and a lot of the areas needed to be dredged because we had a lot of stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces such as streets and parking lots.”
The Hampton River is a 3.2-mile-long estuary that empties into Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads in turn empties into the southern end of Chesapeake Bay.
If sediment flowing into the bay is an ongoing concern, so too is litter.
“[One] time, I looked out the window here and saw something floating in the water, so we took the dinghy out to see what it was,” Neubert said. “It was a turtle that had wedged itself in the center of a tire and had gotten stuck and died — that was one of those times when you see firsthand what pollution and litter can do.”
Conscious that she sound frustrated, Neubert added, “I do think there has been progress and part of that is the result of people simply being more aware of the importance of taking care of our water.
“This past winter I even heard people marvel, ‘Hey, look at the water,'” she said. “There are some days when it looks clearer than we remember.”
Like LePrell , Neubert said she worries about what will happen if Trump’s budget proposal becomes a reality.
“I worry because [the federal funds] are really a multiplier,” she said. “Federal money is often matched by other funds, by businesses and by foundations.”
And it’s not just the drying up of a direct infusion of funding Neubert worries about. She says she’s also worried about the EPA’s ability to continue to coordinate the efforts of several states and scores of other entities with a stake in the bay.
“It’s short sighted to think you can just chop that money away and it’s not going to have an effect on so many different things,” Neubert said.
William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has said he believes if Trump’s budget proposals go through, the estuary will revert to “a national disgrace with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shellfish, and water borne diseases that pose a real threat to human health.”
“Compare that to its current trajectory,” Baler said in a written statement.
“… a bay teeming with healthy fish, oysters and crabs; a Bay safe for children to swim in; a national model of a federal/state partnership heralded worldwide.”
“Eliminating funding for EPA’s Bay Program derails these efforts and directly undermines all that has been accomplished,” he said. “For all of us who care about a restored Bay, healthy crabs and oysters, and healthy local economies, the Trump Administration’s budget is a clarion call to stand up and fight to save the Bay.”
LePrell said the group is working closely with members of Congress whose districts are affected by the well-being of the bay, and that they’ve committed to fighting the draconian cuts to the EPA’s budget. The organization has also posted a petition on its website for members of the public to sign.
“I think it’s critical that people know now more than ever that they can contact their members in Congress, their Senators and their Congressional members, and tell them they want Congress to restore the [environmental] budget,” she said.