Chesapeake Bay advocates are grappling with the idea that the federal government might play virtually no role in the estuary's cleanup under President Donald Trump after it was reported that the White House has proposed a 93 percent budget cut to a key program.
The administration would reduce the Environmental Protection Agency's workforce by one-fifth and cut its budget by one-quarter, according to a proposal outlined by The Washington Post. The agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, which coordinates cleanup and monitoring efforts across the bay watershed, would have its budget slashed from $73 million to $5 million, according to the report.
White House officials would not confirm the report.
Environmentalists, who have gradually shifted from cautious optimism about the Trump administration's stance on bay restoration efforts to alarm, say such a move could reverse years of progress made toward reducing pollution.
"The EPA role in the cleanup of the Chesapeake is nothing less than fundamental," Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said in a statement. "It's not just important, it's critical."
The EPA's bay program coordinates collaboration between six states and the District of Columbia, the federal government and the Chesapeake Bay Commission to uphold a "pollution diet" established for the bay in 2010. Environmentalists argue its role is vital because the states in the bay watershed have no authority over one another.
Two-thirds of the program's budget trickles down to state governments to pay for projects, monitoring and staff focused on water quality. The 22-person bay program office is based in Annapolis.
Nicholas DiPasquale, the program's director, declined to comment on the budget proposal.
Reports of the spending cuts, which come early in the budgeting process for the fiscal year that will end in 2018, came as a surprise to bay program staff and supporters.
The Trump administration, led by recently confirmed EPA Director Scott Pruitt, has hinted at cuts ahead for the agency. But when Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin questioned Pruitt on his commitment to Chesapeake cleanup efforts at Pruitt's confirmation hearing last month, the former Oklahoma attorney general said he is committed to enforcing the 2010 bay cleanup plan.
That appeared contrary to Pruitt's past position on the effort. He was among a group of state attorneys general that supported a lawsuit challenging federal authority to impose the plan. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case last year, in effect upholding an appeals court ruling that rejected the challenge.
Recent evaluations of bay health suggest that the cleanup strategy has helped crab populations, underwater grass acreage and water clarity reach their best levels in decades.
Now, environmental advocates fear the efforts are under threat from within the agency.
"The extreme nature of the cuts is pretty unusual," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project and a former EPA enforcement director.
He speculated that the administration does not expect to eliminate the bay program or other initiatives, but that it is hoping to end up making significant cuts. That could be difficult for environmentalists to prevent, he said.
"If you're in a bargaining position and the first offer is a virtual elimination of the program, then you have to fight your way to get most of it back," he said.
Spokespeople at the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and Environmental Protection Agency did not respond Thursday to requests for comment about the report.
Over the coming months, the EPA and other agencies will work with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget on a spending proposal expected to be presented to Congress in May.
Federal agencies are under pressure to cut spending after Trump proposed increasing defense spending by $54 billion — an increase that the White House has said would be offset with cuts in nondefense budgets.
Congress is not obligated to adopt the administration's proposals, and it rarely does. Instead, the proposals are intended to guide lawmakers as they move through the appropriations process in which money is allocated.
Cardin said the budget plan would set back decades of work reducing nitrogen levels and shrinking "dead zones" in the bay that contain little or no oxygen.
"The drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency will quickly cost the American people as we sacrifice clean air and clean water," he said. "The draconian cuts to the Chesapeake Bay program will cripple long-term efforts to revitalize the economic heart of Maryland."
Rep. Andy Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, was among a bipartisan group of 17 members of Congress who sent a letter to Trump last month asking that the Chesapeake Bay program's budget be maintained at $73 million.
Asked about the proposed cuts Thursday, he said in a statement: "As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I look forward to working with the administration to prioritize programs within the Environmental Protection Agency that would preserve bay cleanup efforts within the constraints of the discretionary budget cuts necessary to increase defense spending."
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.