The historic Thomas Point Shoal Light Station in Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland.

The historic Thomas Point Shoal Light Station in Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland. JAMES_LANE/ISTOCK

Why Does Trump Want to Pull Plug on the Cleanup of the Chesapeake?

The decades-long federal program to clean up Chesapeake Bay is showing signs of success and is supported by politicians of both parties. So why is the Trump administration seeking to eliminate funding for it?

President Donald Trump’s first budget would eliminate all of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $73 million in annual funding for restoring Chesapeake Bay. It is a radical break with decades of federal policy that ironically comes just when investment in the nation’s largest estuary appears to be paying off.

“After decades the bay is finally turning around,” says Walter Boynton, a University of Maryland researcher. “Time to double down, build on the momentum, spend more, not less.”

Boynton has been studying the bay since early signs of decline 45 years ago mobilized the likes of U.S. Senator Charles Mathias, EPA Administrator Russell Train, Interior Secretary Rogers Morton, and community leader Arthur Sherwood, who started the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

All were Republicans, Boynton notes.

“Now we have robust science that tells us we are slowly but surely succeeding,” he says. “How cool for [Trump]to seize on this and say, ‘We’ve taken one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, that was just a mess, and made it great again. Huge victory.’”

The reality is far grimmer. Trump’s budget would zero out direct EPA support for the Chesapeake restoration that began in 1983, and for similar projects in other world-class water resources from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. This is a break with federal priorities that stretch back to President Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 declared the bay a “national treasure.”

From the start, it was agreed that the multi-state nature of the Chesapeake made a federal partnership key to recovery.

The efforts to bring back the Chesapeake – whose second biggest tributary, the Potomac River, flows through the nation’s capital – are widely seen as a national and international model for sustainable use of coastal regions where some half of earth’s 7.5 billion people live. The pollution that has wiped out vital seagrass habitats, fueled toxic algae blooms, and caused large ‘dead zones’ of oxygen-poor waters in the Chesapeake is happening to coastal waters worldwide. More than 400 dead zones are now documented globally, and none have been reversed.

“If we can’t bring water quality back here, in the world’s richest, most powerful nation, where do we expect to?” says William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, now the nation’s largest regional environmental organization.

From the start it was agreed that the multi-state nature of the Chesapeake made a federal partnership key to recovery. While the bay proper stretches nearly 200 miles through Maryland and Virginia to the Atlantic, its 64,000-square-mile watershed drains nearly a sixth of the East Coast – including some 50 rivers originating as far north as Cooperstown, New York – and extends into West Virginia and almost to North Carolina.

The 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed extends into six states.

The 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed extends into six states. Chesapeake Bay Program 

Pollutants are similarly complex, coming from human wastes and stormwater, from manure and chemicals from tens of millions of acres of farms, and in surprising amounts from dirty air blowing across the watershed from as far off as power plants in the Midwest.

The nitrogen and phosphorus in all of this have literally overfed Chesapeake waters, causing eutrophication that has made the estuary too murky and oxygen-poor to maintain the productivity that once supported one of every five people fishing for a living in the United States.

It’s unlikely the six states in the watershed (principally Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania) could make up for the $73 million that Trump would eliminate. The EPA contribution now funds everything from research to enforcement to pollution reduction projects. Ending it would make the national model a “national disgrace,” says Baker.

Congress probably won’t let the worst happen in this instance, as some two dozen U.S. senators and representatives from throughout the watershed have signed letters supporting full funding for the EPA’s Chesapeake program. These include several Republicans, like conservative Maryland Congressman Andy Harris, whose sprawling district includes thousands of miles of bay shoreline. “I do want a hard look at how effectively the money is spent, but near or full funding…I support it,” Harris says.

But Ann Swanson, longtime executive director of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission, says EPA funding for the bay is not what worries her most. 

“The 73 million [dollars] zeroed out drew the attention, but chances of that happening are slim to none,” she contends. “What’s less safe are [Trump’s] far broader cuts: 31 percent across the board for EPA, 21 percent to USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], big cuts to the Department of Interior, NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey. These will be crippling to the bay.”

Swanson explains that “the Chesapeake has become an incredible model for the ‘collaborative federalism’” that is at the core of the federal Clean Water Act. The bay restoration involves six states, the District of Columbia, and 12 federal agencies. Those 12 agencies spend more than half a billion dollars a year on Chesapeake-related recovery.

Combined with billions in state expenditures, those funds underpin a wide array of programs critical to maintaining the health of an estuary with shallow waters [22 feet deep on average] that must absorb the wastes of nearly 18 million people and the runoff from 41 million acres. Federal agencies are key to reaching goals such as planting 8,000 miles of forested and grassy buffers along waterways to filter polluted runoff from farms and development or rebuilding some 20 square miles of oyster reefs in ten Chesapeake rivers at a cost of $6.5 billion. Oysters, which once filtered pollution from a volume of water equivalent to the whole bay every couple weeks, are now at one percent or less of historic abundance.

The annual summer “dead zone” has begun shrinking and does not last as long, and water clarity has improved.

Even more critical is the very unsexy monitoring of water quality trends by the U.S. Geological Survey – “the gold standard,” as Boynton calls it. This monitoring, he notes, provides “the excellent, consistent data that lets us measure how we’re doing, what’s effective, allows us to tease out patterns and trends. If this and other surveys dependent on federal money go, we’re screwed.”

Indeed, if one looks at the iconic seafood resources of the Chesapeake, those that are doing well, such as blue crabs and striped bass, are ones where excellent, long-term monitoring and species population data gave politicians the courage to take strong management actions. Oysters, American shad – species where data was inadequate – have fared poorly.

Overall things clearly have begun looking up for the bay. The annual summer ‘dead zone’ has begun shrinking and does not last as long. Water clarity is improved, allowing more light to seagrasses which cover more acres than in decades. And pollution levels in the majority of the bay’s rivers are trending downward. 

Yet the Chesapeake recovery appears in jeopardy not just from the proposed EPA budget cuts, but perhaps more so from Trump’s recent executive orders, says Jon Mueller, vice president for litigation at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. These orders will undercut wetlands protections, roll back auto mileage and clean air standards, and allow more coal burning – the major source of the mercury contaminating the bay’s seafood.

“People are surprised that air pollution is a third of bay pollution,” Mueller says. “They don’t realize how their car’s miles per gallon can make the bay sicker.” Recent progress in reducing air pollution – mainly to benefit human health – is credited with a significant role in the modest turnaround in bay water quality in the last few years.

Last but not least in Trump-related threats to the Chesapeake recovery is his appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Pruitt was one of several state attorneys general who joined a lawsuit to overturn EPA’s Chesapeake cleanup, filed in 2011 by the American Farm Bureau and other development and agribusiness industries.

The Choptank Wetlands Preserve on Maryland's Choptank River, one of 50 rivers that drain into the Chesapeake.

The Choptank Wetlands Preserve on Maryland's Choptank River, one of 50 rivers that drain into the Chesapeake. MATT RATH/CHESAPEAKE BAY PROGRAM

The suit was explicitly to insure the federal government would not take the “national model” of Chesapeake recovery to other regions of the country, say Mueller and EPA officials. The suit was triggered by EPA’s decision in 2010 to replace the voluntary approach to the bay’s cleanup, which was not working, with a more regulatory approach that EPA officials now credit with the recent turnaround in water quality.

A federal judge in 2013 rejected the suit’s claims of “federal overreach” with a ringing declaration of support for the Clean Water Act that, as the judge’s ruling put it, “envisioned a strong federal role” in reducing pollution. The strategy of EPA setting overall cleanup goals together with the states, and then helping states find their own ways to meet them, was the essence of “cooperative federalism,” the court said. The decision was upheld at every level, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals.

So despite Pruitt’s pledges to support the Chesapeake cleanup at his confirmation hearings, bay managers remain skeptical. They say attempts so far to meet with him or involve him in Chesapeake summit meetings have failed.

Pennsylvania is a prime example of why strong federal oversight is critical to Chesapeake restoration. With a small portion of the southern tier of New York state, it drains 40 percent of the Chesapeake’s basin down the Susquehanna River, which supplies nearly half of all the bay’s freshwater. Pennsylvania’s tens of thousands of farms produce enough pollution that without successful cleanup there, Maryland’s and Virginia’s efforts cannot succeed, all studies show.

Pennsylvania is far behind in meeting its bay cleanup deadlines – and probably was not going to meet them fully by the 2025 deadline EPA has set, no matter who won last November’s election. Politically, the state owns not a square foot of the Chesapeake, and it is struggling with large budget deficits.

“If Pruitt does not back a strong EPA presence [which can include blocking permits and suspending money], then it’s Pennsylvania, exit stage left,” said a federal bay manager who spoke off the record.

Environmentalists say they’re hoping they can make an economic case for cleaning up the Chesapeake that will resonate.

“My boss [Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf] has told us ‘stay the course’ with the Chesapeake,” says Cindy Dunn, the state Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources. “But the net effect of all the federal rollbacks and cuts, if they become reality, it’ll be a big loss of momentum here. It takes so much energy here to keep moving on the Chesapeake… Even if we get the money back, signaling that the federal government is no longer committed does damage. It gives permission to those who’d prefer to back off our commitments.”

Congress will set the final budget. Environmentalists and bay managers say they’re hoping they can make an economic case for the Chesapeake that will resonate. Some 820,000 jobs are connected to the bay, from construction work on sewage treatment plants and stormwater projects, to recreation, wildlife tourism, and the fishing and boating industries.  A Chesapeake Bay Foundation study estimates a fully restored bay would add $22 billion a year to the region’s economy – benefits that include higher property values, more seafood production, and a suite of “ecosystem services” such as enhancing the capacity of wetlands and forests to filter pollution, control flooding, and enhance air quality.

“It would be a shame to lose support just when we all agree things are turning around,” says Beth McGee, the bay foundation’s senior scientist. “Trump has flip-flopped on bigger things than this already, so why not take credit for a Chesapeake comeback.”

Or perhaps, Walter Boynton suggests, “an enormous fish kill around Mar a Lago would help.”