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Restoring the Chesapeake Bay: a decades-old bipartisan effort

As advocates and some lawmakers fight a proposal to zero out $73 million in federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay — an idea the White House reiterated in its budget request Tuesday — some are eying the idea of a bipartisan coalition to enlist help from states that may have more pull with the White House, including those in the Midwest that were critical to Trump’s victory.

Over the past two years, I have been asked the same question over and over again: “How are we able to continue to fund the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort in the current political climate?”

This question has merit, since President Donald Trump’s first proposed budget completely eliminated the $73 million in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chesapeake Bay Program and other critical federal agency support. However, for the past two years, much to the surprise of many, we have been able to maintain the effort because the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams has always crossed political boundaries.

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Since its very inception, restoring the Chesapeake has been a bipartisan effort, starting in 1973 with Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias. A Republican from Maryland, Mathias heard various complaints and reports of an ailing Chesapeake and took it upon himself to travel its waters to see the damage firsthand. The result of that trip was a congressionally funded five-year study, to be led by a relatively new federal agency — the EPA. While that study took place, state and federal leaders worked to create a body that would manage and oversee this massive restoration effort. In 1983, representatives from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Commission convened to sign the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement and established what is known as the Chesapeake Bay Program.

This month marks the 35th anniversary of that agreement, signed by three Democratic and two Republican officials, including William Ruckleshaus, who was appointed as the first administrator for EPA by President Nixon and brought back by President Reagan. The other watershed states (West Virginia, New York and Delaware) have since signed on to subsequent Chesapeake Bay agreements, which have set goals for everything from nutrient pollution to crab populations and have helped to hold the states accountable. The creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program brought with it something else: much needed federal funding.

In 1984, during his bid for re-election, President Reagan used the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay as his principle environmental issue. At the urging of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, and after seeing how the bay watershed states had pledged their own funding for the restoration effort, Reagan mentioned the bay in his State of the Union address, elevating it to a national issue. In 1987, Reagan also became the first president to include funding for the program in a proposed budget to Congress.

Since then, funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program increased from $10.2 million to $73 million, of which $12 million goes to support the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants. These grants, administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), fund on-the-ground restoration projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which are restoring local waterways and protecting the water that we drink. It is a happy coincidence that not only are we celebrating the Program’s 35th anniversary this month, but also an announcement of the most recent grant award recipients. recipients. On Dec. 3, NFWF and EPA announced 49 new grants for projects ranging from improving wildlife habitat along the South River in Annapolis to planting more than 700 trees in Baltimore City.

Thanks to the hard work of Choose Clean Water Coalition members across the watershed, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle understand and appreciate where this critical funding goes. This is also why we have seen continued support for this funding over the past two years. In 2017, after the announcement of the zeroed out budget, more than 90 members of the coalition met with their elected officials to discuss the funding and its impact on local communities. In addition, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle came and spoke at the coalition’s lunch briefing and committed to restoring full funding for the program.

Now we are in the process of welcoming the 116th Congress, with 15 new faces joining the Chesapeake delegation. It is once again our job, and the job of the public, to educate these newcomers about the importance of the role the Chesapeake Bay Program plays in restoring and protecting our rivers and streams. For 35 years, this community has upheld the idea that we will only achieve clean water if we work together and we will continue this tradition until all of our rivers and streams are healthy and flowing into a clean Chesapeake Bay.

Chanté Coleman (colemanc@nwf.org) is the director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

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