As his predecessors have done for the past three decades, Gov. Larry Hogan declared Wednesday that a healthy Chesapeake Bay will be a top priority of his administration.
But environmentalists found little comforting in the Republican governor's pledge, made in his State of the State address to Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis. Activists disputed Hogan's assertion that the cleanup effort isn't working and questioned his prescription for saving it.
"The science shows that there are water quality improvements," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker, "and now would be the worst time to give up on proven pollution reduction techniques."
Baker and Alison Prost, the foundation's Maryland director, were chagrined that Hogan cited the Annapolis-based environmental group's own report card on the bay's health to conclude that it was "time for a new approach" to restoring the ailing estuary.
Earlier this month, the foundation graded the bay's health a D-plus, unchanged since the last report card in 2012.
"This is just the latest indicator that our current strategy for protecting and restoring our greatest natural asset is failing," Hogan said. "Our administration intends to reverse that trend."
Baker and Prost said Hogan misread the report, if he concluded that cleanup efforts to date aren't working. Water quality scores in the bi-annual report cards have improved significantly in the past five to eight years, they said. But those pollution reductions were offset by declines in the bay's blue crabs and striped bass or rockfish, leaving the overall grade the same.
Other checkups on the bay's health have made similar findings. While water quality varies from year to year with the weather, it has made modest improvements in since the bay cleanup effort began 30 years ago - though those gains have leveled off in recent years.
A "bay barometer" released earlier this week by the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program found that there have been "no significant changes" seen in water quality in the last decade. But communities have reduced nutrient and sediment pollution, it noted, and while crabs are down, other fish and bay grasses "have improved in the face of challenges." Overall, officials declared the bay "in recovery."
Aside from Hogan's gloomy assessment of cleanup efforts to date, Prost said she was troubled that while Hogan acknowledged the bay's pollution problems, he didn't spell out any solutions.
Prost questioned how Hogan intends to reduce bay pollution if he succeeds in repealing the so-called "rain tax," the fees Baltimore city and seven counties now collect from property owners to control polluted runoff from their streets, buildings and parking lots.
She also wondered what Hogan intends to do about phosphorus pollution from Eastern Shore farms - which he seemed to acknowledge was a problem.
Hogan signaled in the speech he's not likely to reinstate O'Malley administration regulations, which he withdrew within hours of being sworn in. Those rules would have curbed the amount of phosphorus-rich poultry manure farmers can apply to fields already saturated with the plant nutrient.
Hogan asserted that Maryland's farmers have been saddled with "unreasonable burdens" for cleaning up the bay. He offered no alternative but vowed instead to seek "fair and balanced solutions" for limiting phosphorus pollution.
He also pledged to reorient bay cleanup efforts to go after the "long-ignored impact of upstream polluters, and the sediment spilling over the Conowingo Dam."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch and others have questioned Hogan's focus on the dam sediment, pointing to a federal-state study that found it a relatively small part of the bay's pollution problem, but one that could cost up to $3 billion to deal with.
Prost didn't completely disagree with Hogan on pollution coming down the Susquehanna, as EPA has found Pennsylvania lagging in making required pollution reductions.
"The way to stop the pollution from entering the Susquehanna River is to put pressure on Pennsylvania," she said. But at the same time, she said, Maryland can't afford to let up "to clean up our local water quality problems."