Rancor and partisan bickering may be de rigueur in politics these days, but the Chesapeake Bay Commission abides in a bubble of amicable collaboration.

Now completing its fourth decade in existence, the 21-member commission has brought Democratic and Republican lawmakers together from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to seek solutions to the Bay’s daunting array of problems.

Ann Swanson, who has served as executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission since 1988, briefs an audience on the commission’s structure, history and achievements. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The commission’s current chairman, Pennsylvania state Sen. Gene Yaw, calls it a “unique” body unlike any he’s ever been associated with. He said he’s formed friendships with members from other states, backgrounds and political affiliations.

“I have never heard politics mentioned,” said Yaw, a Republican. “It’s nonpartisan. I couldn’t even tell you the party relationship of the majority of people.” He called the experience “refreshing and rewarding.”

The tri-state legislative advisory commission has played a pivotal role in the long-running Bay restoration effort. It sponsored the initial summit of state and federal officials in 1983 that formally launched the Bay cleanup campaign. And, it has been a signatory of every Bay agreement, representing the states’ legislatures.

Over the last 40 years, hundreds of state legislators of both parties, cabinet secretaries and citizens have served on the commission. They have cooperated to draft and champion the passage of dozens of Bay-related laws and to press for adequate state and federal funding for the restoration effort.

“The commission has been very active, very forward thinking in dealing with the problems of the Bay,” said Tayloe Murphy, Jr., who served a record three times as its chairman while a member for 22 years, first as a Virginia state delegate and later as state secretary of natural resources.

“The members have not always been as successful as I would have hoped with their legislatures,” Murphy added. But without the commission, he concluded, “we wouldn’t have been as successful as we have been.”

Now, it faces perhaps its most difficult challenge, as states struggle to meet the 2025 deadline for putting in place the laws, programs and funding needed to restore the Bay’s water quality. Pennsylvania has fallen far behind the pace needed to reach that goal, prompting criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers in other states — and a pair of lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency trying to force it to take action against the state.

Pennsylvania Sen. Gene Yaw, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission (center), talks with commission vice chairs Guy Guzzone (left) of the Maryland State Senate and David Bulova of the Virginia House of Delegates. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

he controversy hasn’t intruded on the collegial ethos of the commission, at least so far.

“Our approach is to work together to solve the problem and not to criticize each other,” Yaw said.

The commission grew out of a bi-state legislative advisory committee formed in 1978 by Maryland and Virginia lawmakers. Two years later, they formally established it, and Pennsylvania joined in 1985. Each state has seven members: five legislators, a representative of the governor and a citizen. 

Early work on fisheries

Early on, commissioners focused on resolving conflicts between Maryland and Virginia watermen over fishing across state lines, disputes where at times, shooting erupted.

One of the commission’s first legislative wins was a ban on phosphate detergent aimed at reducing the amounts of phosphorus getting into the Bay, where it contributed to algae blooms and fish-stressing “dead zones.” Maryland lawmakers passed the ban in 1985, followed two years later by Pennsylvania and then Virginia two years after that.

The same pattern played out with getting farmers to practice nutrient management, with each state legislature acting in its own way to limit growers’ use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer so less would run off their fields and foul the Bay. Maryland and Virginia also passed somewhat different measures intended to curb the impacts of shoreline development on the Bay’s water quality.

Other times, legislation drafted or supported by the commission has passed in just one or two states, rather than all three. Such has been the case with a bill to restrict the application of residential lawn fertilizer, which passed relatively easily in Maryland and Virginia but has yet to get through Pennsylvania’s legislature.

Tayloe Murphy of Virginia, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission for 22 years, speaks during a commission meeting in Baltimore. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Current and former members credit much of the commission’s success to its long-serving executive director, Ann Swanson, who’s led the group since 1988.

“She’s so studied and dogged,” said John Griffin, a former Maryland natural resources secretary who served on the commission. One of her greatest strengths, he said, is her ability to deal with the differing personalities and political affiliations of the commission’s shifting cast of members.

Swanson, in turn, deflects the credit to the commission members themselves. Many serve multiple years, she noted, and through their exposure to the issues and the science behind the Bay restoration, they become advocates regardless of political persuasion.

“It’s the staff’s job to understand the facts and some politics, and the members’ job to understand the politics and some facts,” she said. “When the members and staff come together it can be a powerful situation.”

One of the commission’s signal achievements came in the 1990s. Amid friction between Maryland and Virginia over the economically important blue crab fishery, the commission formed a bistate advisory committee that brought together legislators, watermen, scientists and fishery managers to hash out differences.

Swanson chaired a workgroup of scientists and economists that over eight years helped to guide the states to an agreement to rely on science and to manage crabs as one fishery across state lines.

‘A wake-up call’

The commission has also advocated repeatedly for getting adequate state and federal funding for the Bay and for ensuring that the funds are spent where they’re most needed or will do the most good.

In 2003, it published an eye-opening report estimating the cost to restore the Bay’s water quality to a healthy level — $18.7 billion over the next eight years. That’s about $13 billion more than the Bay watershed states and federal government had put up so far.

“It was a wake-up call,” said Russ Fairchild, a former Pennsylvania state representative who was the commission’s chairman at the time. “But with that we were able to go to our respective states and leadership, and we could start to talk turkey with them.”

The results have been uneven. In 2004, Maryland approved a Bay Restoration Fund financed with fees on utility bills and septic systems, which has poured $1.6 billion into upgrading the state’s sewage treatment plants, and more than $500 million into runoff pollution control measures, paid for through gasoline and car rental tax revenues.

Virginia has spent more than $900 million via a dedicated water quality improvement fund to upgrade its sewage infrastructure, the commission reports.

There’s been less success in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers in 1999 approved the creation of a Growing Greener program to dole out $650 million for everything from farmland preservation to park improvements and water and sewer upgrades. But chunks of that money got diverted for other purposes, and Pennsylvania officials have since estimated that the state will need to increase spending by $300 million a year to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in its rivers and streams enough to meet the state’s Bay restoration obligations.

Pennsylvania members of the commission have tried without success the last several years to persuade their legislature to approve a dedicated funding source for the work.

This year, Yaw sponsored a bill that would have created a program to help farmers pay for conservation practices.

But it, too, failed to pass, as the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the state’s economy.

Yaw acknowledges that increasing funding for Bay cleanup has been a tough sell in Pennsylvania. The state doesn’t border the Bay and, though half of its land is drained by the Bay’s two largest tributaries, the Susquehanna and Potomac rivers, only 30% of the population lives in the Bay watershed.

Adjusting the pitch

Swanson and Pennsylvania members of the commission have adjusted their pitch to the state’s lawmakers to stress that addressing pollution close to home will help the Bay. More than 25,000 miles, or 30% of the state’s rivers and streams, fail to meet water quality standards, according to the latest assessment by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“If we just take care of our own clean water, we don’t have to worry about what happens downstream,” Yaw said. “That will take care of itself.”

That message hasn’t carried the day so far, and Pennsylvania has faced increasing criticism from environmentalists and elected officials from other Bay states.

Maryland Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said the commission has helped her to better understand the challenges Pennsylvania lawmakers face. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

This year, Maryland and Virginia took it a step further. They joined in filing one of two lawsuits — the other was brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — accusing the EPA of neglecting to move against Pennsylvania and New York after both fell short on their latest Bay cleanup plans.

Yaw said the lawsuits and criticism have made it even harder to win votes for Bay legislation in Harrisburg.

“There are people out there who say, ‘Fine, they want to sue us? We’re not doing anything,’?” he said. “It’s one additional hurdle we have to overcome.”

Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth said she’s come to understand, after more than a year on the commission, the challenges Pennsylvania lawmakers face. For one thing, they have to deal with more than 2,500 cities, boroughs, towns and townships, she noted.

Even so, Elfreth said, “I want to be clear. They need to be doing more. But we have to deal with where they are.” 

Thinking outside the box

The commission has joined others in pressing for more federal money to help Pennsylvania. But they’ve also talked about funneling money to the state from its neighbors.

“Watersheds and water do not respect arbitrary state borders,” Elfreth said. “I think our solutions ought to be more regional.”

Spending Maryland taxpayers’ money in Pennsylvania could also be a hard sell. But Elfreth said, “To not at least have that conversation is a disservice to the Bay.”

Yaw said he’s encouraged by such thinking outside the box and thinks it may sway Pennsylvania legislators to increase funding if other states are offering to help.

Swanson acknowledges that she’s frustrated by the repeated failures to get Pennsylvania lawmakers to approve a dedicated fund for improving water quality. But commission members “know not to give up,” she said.

“We always have to take conservation in measured steps,” she said. “We cannot get too far out in front of the public or the champions lose their jobs. And if the champions lose their jobs, then we lose progress toward our goal line.”

This article originally appeared on BayJournal.com on November 4, 2020, and is republished with permission.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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