The EPA’s bulked-up efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay could serve as a model for water restoration projects in other parts of the country, environmentalists say.
Under President Joe Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency will dedicate more funding, more staff, and more interstate cooperation to restore the 64,000-square mile watershed, Administrator Michael Regan told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday.
If the EPA can clean up the Chesapeake—which the agency says has the largest, most complex total maximum daily load program of any waterway project it has ever undertaken—then the agency can clean up almost anything, environmentalists say.
“The ultimate cleanup of the Bay absolutely can be applied, nationally and internationally,” said Denise Stranko, federal affairs director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It really is a shining example of what can be done, and its success can serve as a beacon for other waterways all over the world.”
The Trump administration sought to eliminate or sharply curtail funding to restore the bay, but Congress blocked those efforts.
Regan told Congress he’s considering ways to further boost the agency’s Chesapeake Bay work. One approach could be to hire a senior adviser who can knit together various agencies for large cleanup efforts, he said.
Such a person could work with agencies like the Department of Agriculture, which oversees agricultural runoff, as well as state environmental quality agencies and regional water boards.
Coordination is also needed in cases in which several states share the same watershed. Six states and the District of Columbia drain into the Chesapeake, and six states and the province of Ontario border the Great Lakes.
As an example of state coordination, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said during the hearing that Pennsylvania isn’t in compliance with its Chesapeake obligations and will only achieve 75% of the target needed to reach the agreed-upon cleanup goals by 2025.
In response, Regan said the EPA wants to “facilitate this process so that everyone meets the goals that have been set out,” but didn’t provide a detailed plan.
Regan also said he’s pondering beefing up the EPA Region 3’s Chesapeake Bay program office to make it “more muscular,” turning it into an expert source “that’s whispering in the administrator’s ear.”
“We’re looking at, what is the best scenario for me to have the best advice on the ground on how to coordinate on these efforts?” he said at Wednesday’s hearing.
In response, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the two options—hiring a senior adviser and beefing up the Region 3 office—aren’t mutually exclusive.
“The Region 3 administrator can be muscular within EPA’s authority,” he said. “But there are many other pieces to this cleanup puzzle, including the Department of Agriculture, and you’re going to need somebody who is 24/7 making sure all the other agencies that are involved in the cleanup effort are at the table and doing their job.”
Stranko said her organization is less concerned with where the new hires sit than with whether they’re dedicated to the Chesapeake full-time.
More funding is yet another part of the EPA’s response.
Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget would deliver $90.5 million to the EPA for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, which is the full amount that was authorized in 2021. The program is now funded at $87.5 million.
“After surviving repeated attempts by the Trump administration to slash its funding, strengthening this critical program will increase its capacity and effectiveness to improve water quality throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Mariah Davis, acting director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.
But even if the Chesapeake cleanup hits its targets, the model can’t simply be “cut and paste” into other settings without enduring commitments from all parties, Stranko said.
The Chesapeake effort has evolved over several decades, growing from a handful of voluntary agreements between states to a set of mandatory requirements laid down by the EPA in 2010—driven by litigation—and finally a watershed implementation plan with periodic milestones for the states.
Replicating the Chesapeake program in other states also may require battling with states that “fear a similar program could come to their backyard,” Davis said.
“Rather than fighting against this successful model, they should embrace it for the countless benefits clean water provides to local economies, recreation, and public health.”