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By: Karl Blankenship, BayJournal.com

Fresh off successful efforts to bolster Chesapeake Bay-related funding for this year, advocates are hoping to secure even greater federal support for cleanup and restoration work next year.

Many Bay efforts — from oyster restoration to environmental education and the region’s cornerstone nutrient reduction objectives — face challenges in meeting their goals, but advocates hope an infusion of funding will help push them over the finish line.

“With multiple deadlines approaching, federal investment has never been needed more,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

“[Funding] must continue and be strategically enhanced to better address agriculture and land conservation — both vital to successfully achieving our shared goal of clean water by 2025.”

The commission unveiled its funding requests for nearly a dozen federal programs earlier this year.

On March 4, more than 100 members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, which represents more than 250 nonprofit organizations in the Bay watershed, descended on the Capital to make the case for continued Bay support.

Recent efforts have been successful in warding off cuts proposed by the Trump administration that would have slashed funding for many programs affecting the Bay. For instance, the administration each year has proposed either eliminating or making a 90% percent funding cut for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program Office. Instead, Congress — which makes final spending decisions — increased its funding for this year to $85 million, up from $73 million.

The office provides overall support and coordination for the state-federal Bay restoration effort. About two-thirds of its money goes toward grants that support pollution control projects by states, local governments, nonprofit groups and others.

The administration has again proposed a 90% cut for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, but Bay advocates are hoping to instead boost Bay Program funding again. They are seeking $90.5 million, with the increase going to grant programs that support on-the-ground water quality improvement work.

The Bay region is off track to meet its 2025 nutrient reduction goals aimed at cleaning its murky water and eliminating its oxygen-starved “dead zone.” With much of the remaining reductions needing to come from the agricultural sector, the groups are calling on Congress to fully fund conservation programs in the 2018 Farm Bill, which provide most of the financial assistance to the region’s farmers for implementing runoff controls.

Among their requests is $1.8 billion nationally for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program and $300 million for its Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which provides additional support in areas of special needs, such as the Bay region.

“As these Farm Bill programs are implemented, it’s vital that limited conservation dollars go to the areas of greatest need and impact, including South Central Pennsylvania where many farmers are working to take important steps for clean water but need financial and technical assistance,” Choose Clean Water said in letters to lawmakers presented during their visits. “These types of high priority areas have tremendous downstream impacts.”

The groups also asked for increased support for technical assistance programs that support farmers’ conservation projects.

The Bay Program is also behind schedule for its goal of restoring oyster habitat and populations in 10 rivers by 2025. Oyster reefs were once one of the Bay’s most defining features — Chesapeake means “great shellfish bay” in Algonquin — but their population is at 1% of historic levels.

To help, the groups are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allocate $5 million for oyster restoration next year and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to chip in another $4 million.

They also want $1 million to support fisheries science grants by the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, up from $240,000 this year. The office is the major source of funding for much of the Bay-specific fisheries research that supports such economically important species as blue crabs and striped bass.

The groups also are seeking $3 million for the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Trails program, a network of sites that highlight the Bay region’s natural, historic and cultural heritage, up from the $2 million allocated for this year. Most of the funding is used for grants to the parks, museums, natural areas and historic sites that are in the network to help them improve public access and explain how those places fit into the broader Bay story.

The U.S. Geological Survey coordinates much of the river and stream monitoring in the region. It also supports research on fish and wildlife in the watershed, as well as investigations into the impacts of toxic contaminants. Funding for its Chesapeake Ecosystem Science and Monitoring program was increased to $14.85 million this year, and the groups are seeking to maintain that level next year.

They have also requested $105 million for the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Program, which funds conservation easements on lands that serve as buffers around military bases across the nation. The easements are intended to prevent land use conflicts in areas used for activities such as training flights and have become a major source of land preservation funding around the Bay. Fourteen bases around the Chesapeake participate in the program, and last year they received $8.4 million for easements, though $23.4 million was requested.

Other highlights of funding requests included:

  • $3.5 million for NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training Program, which provides grants to support outdoor education programs for students. That would be an increase from $2.7 million allotted this year.
  • $1 million for NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, which provides real-time data on water quality and Bay conditions and is used by boaters and scientists.
  • $14.5 million for continued construction of Poplar Island by the Corps of Engineers, which uses material dredged from shipping channels to rebuild the island and its wetland habitats.

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...