Policymakers, advocates look to remake Bay cleanup program even as some goals go unmet

Federal and state environmental officials have acknowledged for the past couple of years that states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will fall short of meeting some of their pollution reduction and resiliency goals by the federally prescribed 2025 deadlines.

But policymakers, scientists, academics and advocates continue to focus on both the 2025 objectives and a new set of imperatives that reflect both the progress and the challenges in Bay cleanup that remain.

“We are not just going to wait for that date — we are also looking ahead,” said Eric Hughes, a scientist in the Chesapeake Bay office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hughes and other experts on Bay health spoke at a daylong online conference Thursday sponsored by the EPA’s Region III office, which covers several mid-Atlantic states including Maryland.

In 2014, the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York, along with the District of Columbia — entered into a wide-ranging agreement with the federal government to reduce the “total maximum daily load,” a calculation of how much pollution was going into the Bay. States were assigned individual objectives — which some have been more successful than others in meeting — while collective goals were also set.

While there have been few consequences for states and government agencies that have fallen short of meeting certain outcomes, Maryland, Virginia and environmental groups did sue the EPA during the Trump administration for not doing enough to police upriver pollution, particularly in Pennsylvania. Those lawsuits resulted in a settlement that included Pennsylvania agreeing to more vigorous standards for controlling farm runoff and other public health hazards.

Federal officials said Thursday that of 31 desired outcomes laid out in the 2014 agreement, 17 have been met. The deficiencies, they said, have included the slow pace of improving water quality in the watershed, lack of progress in improving and protecting some wildlife habitat, and delays in reaching climate adaptability objectives.

Even with those shortfalls, “it is important to know that the Bay program has achieved plenty of success,” Hughes said.

The question for policymakers and community leaders is how to fill the achievement gaps while also designing a more nimble Chesapeake Bay program for the future.

“We aren’t taking our foot off the gas in the meantime,” said Anna Killius, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a policymaking and advocacy body comprised of state lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. “But now we are trying to chart a course beyond 2025.”

Several speakers at the conference said government’s inability to meet certain goals by the deadline did not represent complete failure. They suggested that certain priorities needed to be reordered, coupled with realistic strategic and funding goals for meeting them. Others could receive less attention in the short term.

Larry Sanford, a professor and vice president for education at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said a “slight reallocation of resources” can allow experts to focus on both the achievable and the long term.

“We need to think outside the box,” he said. “These big, bureaucratic programs that aim to achieve really big objectives — they’re really hard to reverse course. This is our chance, 2025, to really decide if we want to change direction.”

Staffers connected to the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, which consists of EPA officials and state leaders, are developing recommendations for changes to the Bay program, which they hope to have completed, along with public vetting, by the time the full council next meets in December. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) is the current chair of the council, which also issues policy goals.

Charles Herrick, an adjunct faculty member at New York University and chair of the Chesapeake Bay program’s stakeholders’ advisory committee, said there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that pollution reduction goals mean taking the Bay back to the way it was.

Many Chesapeake Bay communities in the past were redlined to keep people of color out, Herrick said. Policymakers must ensure that there’s more and better access to the water, all over the Bay watershed, for more than just a privileged few. And a more diverse collection of decision-makers on Bay policy is necessary to make sure that the interests of people of color and others who have felt shut out of the dialogue have an appropriate measure of say.

“We don’t want to restore past conditions,” Herrick said.

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