Hogan, EPA express support for Chesapeake Bay program, but signal budget fight ahead

Gov. Larry Hogan and a top Environmental Protection Agency official on Thursday downplayed concerns that federal support for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup will vanish under the administration of President Donald Trump — but at the same time suggested it will take a strong fight on Capitol Hill in the coming months to preserve funding.

Hogan hosted officials from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, the District of Columbia and the EPA Thursday at an annual meeting in Annapolis of the body that oversees the Chesapeake Bay Program. The 30-year-old federal-state partnership coordinates efforts to reduce pollution across the bay watershed.

The meeting is typically a low-key affair. But this year environmentalists, scientists and politicians are on alert because Trump's budget calls for eliminating the $73 million bay program.

Representatives from the six jurisdictions signed a resolution urging Trump and Congress "to continue the current level of federal support for the Chesapeake Bay Program" and maintain "the active, coordinating role of the EPA."

"Please convey our concerns to your members of Congress," Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told members of the Chesapeake Executive Council. "We don't want to get left out."

Hogan indicated he has already started to lobby EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The two had what Hogan called a "productive" and "excellent" phone call last week in which the governor expressed disappointment in Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and concern about the future of the federal bay program.

"I got the impression he's very aware and very concerned," Hogan said of Pruitt.

Hogan said he doesn't expect Trump's proposal to survive the budget process in Washington.

"It's simply a suggestion," Hogan said. "I don't believe Congress is going to fully agree with that suggestion."

Those assurances did not assuage bay advocates' fears that states will be on their own in cleanup efforts.

Ken Wagner, Pruitt's senior adviser for state and regional affairs at EPA, said the agency is "committed to being a full partner" in the bay program. Pruitt is expected to testify before Congress on his agency's budget in the coming weeks, Wagner said.

"The president's budget is just a starting point," Wagner said. "He is committed to empowering the states to do the business of environmental protection, including the Chesapeake Bay."

If that's true, Chesapeake Bay Commission executive director Ann Swanson said, Pruitt and colleagues need to be vocal in their support of maintaining the bay program's current funding levels.

"They need to help us from within to make sure that happens," Swanson said. "The Chesapeake Bay is not partisan politics."

Will Baker, CEO of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, commended the council for its resolution pressing for bay funding, But he said he wasn't confident the EPA would join the fight.

"We are very disappointed EPA's representative didn't give an explanation for why this money has been cut at such a critical time," Baker said. "EPA is the glue that holds the states and the district together. That is why the program has been a success."

Bay indicators ranging from underwater grass abundance to female crab population growth to water clarity are at their most promising levels since the bay program launched in 1983.

"The science tells us we've come to a tipping point," Walter Boynton, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, told the panel.

Council members said that makes this a dangerous time for EPA to be dialing back its support of the bay program. The Annapolis-based office passes most of its funding down to states for their own bay cleanup efforts, and wields federal power over states if they aren't up to the task.

"Now is not the time to allow ourselves to be distracted or defunded," said L. Scott Lingamfelter, a Virginia state delegate.

A budget agreement passed last month maintains the Chesapeake program's budget through September. As Congress looks to the coming fiscal year, bay advocates said they plan to fight not just for funding but for initiatives through the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Wagner said any final call on the appropriate amount of funding for the bay program is "not really [EPA's] decision."

"We expect a collaborative process to determine what that is," he said.

Separately, Hogan gave perhaps his strongest indication yet that Maryland won't join the U.S. Climate Alliance, the group of a dozen mostly Democratic states that has expressed commitment to the Paris climate pact despite Trump's decision to abandon it.

"We're not sure what the intention of the group is," Hogan said. "We've already accomplished what most of [the states] need to try to shoot for."

McAuliffe said he agreed to join the group Monday as "a show of unity more than anything else."

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