Michael Regan, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, officially took the helm Dec. 15 of the Chesapeake Executive Council, the board of state and federal leaders that oversees the estuary’s restoration.
But he did so in absentia. The council needed a successor for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who is set to leave office because of term limits in January. Accepting the gavel on Regan’s behalf at the council’s gathering in Richmond, VA, was Janet McCabe, his deputy administrator.
Regan didn’t miss meeting many of his colleagues. Besides the EPA administrator, the council’s members include the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and West Virginia; the mayor of Washington, DC; and the head of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which consists of legislators from Bay states.
But only two members were on hand to witness the proceedings, both from Virginia: Northam and state Del. David Bulova, chair of the Bay Commission.
The other states and DC each dispatched deputies of their own. But the absence of so much leadership in one room led some environmentalists to worry that the nearly 40-year-old restoration effort is losing steam.
“I am gravely concerned about the lack of leadership by the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council,” Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said afterward. “Only Gov. Northam has made a clear stand in support of Bay restoration. That so many leaders were missing today does not bode well for the future.”
The state and federal partnership face a self-imposed 2025 deadline to put in place actions to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake and meet a variety of other goals deemed critical to restoring the health of Bay and its watershed.
But an annual assessment released at the meeting showed that the program is “on track” to meet the targets on just 11 of 31 outcomes established in its restoration roadmap, the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The rest are listed as “off course” or “uncertain.”
Efforts in danger of falling behind by 2025 include obtaining 130,000 acres of underwater grasses, expanding the region’s urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres, and increasing the occupied habitat of brook trout by 8%.
But several speakers at the Dec. 15 meeting struck an optimistic tone, pointing to hefty investments in the partnership at the state and federal levels.
Northam highlighted a two-year budget that, among other things, proposes spending a record $286 million on the Virginia Natural Resources Commitment Fund, a cost-share program that assists farmers with installing conservation practices. The budget also seeks to set aside $165 million to help the cities of Alexandria, Lynchburg and Richmond fix long-standing sewage overflow problems.
On the federal side, officials touted the $238 million made available for Bay-specific funding in the recently passed $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Additional money for other programs in the bill, such as those that provide loans for wastewater plants and stormwater system upgrades, could further boost efforts.
“We’re racing to move those funds to where Congress and the president want them to go,” McCabe said. “This is our moment to show that government can work.”
Staff members also updated the leadership on one of the program’s newest goals: increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.
One of the top-line targets of the strategy, adopted by the Executive Council at its 2020 meeting, is to raise the number of people of color to 25% of the partnership’s staff. That figure rose slightly from 2016 to 2019 — from 13.7% to 14.6%. The program registered the goal as “off track.”
But other steps are being taken, according to partnership documents. The grants teams began using more-inclusive language in their grant advertising. And the Diversity Workgroup hosted focus groups throughout the year aimed at improving the partnership’s engagement with communities that bear scars from years of scant support.
For much of its 40-year history, the Bay partnership largely has been marked by collaboration on shared environmental goals. But some of those relationships have been strained in the aftermath of a lawsuit filed last year by the attorneys general of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. The suit accuses the EPA of shirking its responsibility under the Clean Water Act by letting Pennsylvania and New York fall short in reducing their nutrient and sediment pollution fouling the Bay.
The Executive Council typically meets once a year, but December’s meeting was it’s second in less than three months. The roster of attendees at the Oct. 1 meeting in Virginia Beach was also thin on political star power, with Northam and Bulova joined by only Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
This article was oringally published on BayJournal.com.