The Chesapeake’s dismal forecast without the Clean Water Rule
As I write this, clean-water advocates look with worry to Washington, where the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has announced the process for repealing and replacing a rule meant to clarify which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. For the sake of the Chesapeake Bay, the Clean Water Rule is one Obama-era action that President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should think about keeping.
The repeal effort comes on the heels of the president’s fiscal year 2018 federal budget, which proposed the elimination of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program. About two-thirds of this $73 million annual program is sent to states across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Maryland, to help reduce pollution in the bay and restore water quality in local streams and rivers far removed from the main-stem Chesapeake — such as those in New York and Pennsylvania. A House panel proposed $60 million in funding.
When it comes to getting pollution out of our waters, the government faces two choices: incentive or regulation, the carrot or the stick. Most folks prefer the gentler route of incentive rather than the sometimes coarse application of the regulatory stick, particularly when very few are polluting waters intentionally. This is a real-world application of the old concept that you gather more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Taken together, regulation and reward can be a recipe for the successful restoration of estuaries such as the Chesapeake. Unfortunately, the EPA’s action will take us two steps backward, marginalizing regulation and incentive — one as too burdensome and the other as too costly. Failure seems assured.
Between the Clean Water Act and the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal government had two hands firmly on the wheel of Chesapeake restoration. The changes we’ve seen coming out of the Trump administration recently would seem to leave the bay restoration effort without a clear driver.
In Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay is an iconic and proud part of our identity. But its story begins in small runs and creeks hundreds of miles away, in townships and boroughs that have no obvious connection to the bay. Asking people to care about something they don’t often see is a difficult proposition. Asking elected officials to spend scant tax revenue to clean up an estuary wholly outside their jurisdiction is a tall order.
But we simply cannot have a clean Chesapeake or the working commercial waterfronts and massive recreation economy the bay supports without protecting those far-upstream headwaters. Of course, we protect those waters not only for the bay’s sake but also for their own sake; for those waters are in many cases the trout streams of Pennsylvania and provide the drinking water of New York.
Now is not the time for the federal government to abandon the Chesapeake. In a watershed as large and diverse as the bay’s, covering 64,000 square miles and parts of six states and the District of Columbia, the federal government has an essential and appropriate role: to help ensure that there is one coordinated, watershed-wide restoration effort, not several disparate and unequal individual efforts.
All of this is coming after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released study data that forecast a largerthan-normal bay “dead zone” — an area of such low oxygen levels that fish and other aquatic life cannot live. Monitoring the bay’s dead zone has become almost a summer ritual, as whole swaths of the Chesapeake become biological deserts unable to host the bay’s iconic blue crab and striped bass.
This forecast should motivate everyone in the watershed to do more, not less, and that certainly includes the Environmental Protection Agency.
Schooners make their way under the Bay Bridge for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race last year.