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EPA is failing the Chesapeake Bay and America’s clean water promise

Boats sail with spinnakers up in the J105 class race. Sailors took part in the opening night of the Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday Night Racing on the Chesapeake Bay.
Boats sail with spinnakers up in the J105 class race. Sailors took part in the opening night of the Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday Night Racing on the Chesapeake Bay. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

This may be our last shot to save the Chesapeake Bay. We have a science-based plan, and we know that it’s working. But with only five years to go until the 2025 deadline for the nation’s most ambitious water restoration effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refuses to do its job.

The agency’s failure to enforce the Clean Water Act and the terms of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint kneecaps the decadeslong cleanup effort. For three years the Trump administration has tried to defund the Chesapeake Bay Program, but Congress kept it alive. Now, the administration’s strategy appears to be simply ignoring Congress’ directive and the Clean Water Act’s requirements for the EPA to save the bay. The bay’s hard-won progress and the best model for finally achieving fishable, swimmable waters are in jeopardy.

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Congress passed the Clean Water Act nearly 50 years ago. Its goal is now in reach for the Chesapeake Bay, but the EPA seems intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

That’s why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and our partners — the Maryland Watermen’s Association, Anne Arundel County, and Virginia cattle farmers Jeanne Hoffman and Bobby Whitescarver — have filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA. The Attorneys General of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia have also filed their own notice of intent to sue.

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In more than 40 years working for bay restoration, I have never seen such a concerted effort to require the federal government to do its job to reduce water pollution. Why now?

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the historic federal/state plan established in 2010 to restore the bay’s water quality, is unlike any other previous attempt to clean up the bay. It’s unlike any other environmental restoration effort in the nation. The blueprint spans the entire 64,000-square-mile watershed and involves all six states and the District of Columbia that share it.

The blueprint includes science-based limits on pollution entering the bay and its rivers and streams. Each bay jurisdiction must create a plan to put practices in place by 2025 that achieve those limits. Two-year milestones track progress toward the goal. Critically, if jurisdictions fall behind or do not create adequate plans to meet their goals, the EPA must impose consequences.

We have been seeing progress. Underwater grasses are becoming more resilient. Over time, the bay’s dead zone is getting smaller, and blue crab populations are rebounding. And it’s not just about clean water. Taking action to reduce pollution supports local businesses, creates jobs and provides additional environmental and public health benefits — all critically important in our current national public health and economic crisis.

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EPA is the only agency with the authority to hold states accountable to the pollution reductions required, and agreed upon, in the blueprint. In fact, it is legally obligated by a special provision in the Clean Water Act to ensure all bay jurisdictions meet their commitments by 2025.

The final pollution-reduction plans submitted to the EPA last year by Pennsylvania and New York fall far short. They will not achieve the blueprint goals. Despite its legal responsibilities, EPA took no steps to hold either state accountable.

Filing a notice of intent is the first step in litigation to force the EPA to do its job. The Clean Water Act requires 60 days notice to resolve issues before a lawsuit can be filed. We hope the agency will address the problem out of court, but Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressed little interest when we met with him last year. We are fully prepared to file suit if EPA does not act now.

The bay’s recovery is fragile. It continues to face steep challenges, including climate change, added pollution loads from the Conowingo Dam, and now the unparalleled COVID-19 crisis. If we are ever going to save it and deliver on the promise of the Clean Water Act, EPA must act now.

The blueprint is an investment in our future. Clean water for our children and grandchildren will be the return on that investment.

William C. Baker (wbaker@cbf.org) is president of The Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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