By Pat Calvert
This holiday season, most of us are thinking about getting cozy in front of a crackling fire with a nice mug of hot cocoa — not about splashing around in the chilly Chesapeake Bay. While we’re still months away from our first Bay day, it’s imperative that we keep this nationally-known resource on the forefront of our minds, for the winter months are most critical for Chesapeake Bay protection. This is because the level of funding that the Chesapeake Bay and her tributary rivers receive at the federal and state levels is decided upon during this time.
The Chesapeake Bay is one of America’s greatest treasures. Made up of a network of hundreds of thousands of rivers and streams that drain over 64,000 square miles, our watershed is a vital source of recreation, food, and drinking water for millions of American families. Additionally, thousands of members of the tourism and fishing industries depend on the Chesapeake Bay as a source of livelihood for their own families.
The Chesapeake Bay faces regular threats, but among the greatest in Virginia is nutrients and sediment from farms polluting local streams and rivers that eventually reach the Bay. While numerous well-operated farms employ sound conservation practices that protect water quality, many others lack the technical and financial resources to follow suit.
In order to address these challenges faced by the agriculture industry, Virginia’s legislature established the Agricultural Cost-Share Program in 1984. This program has helped thousands of famers implement more than fifty best management practices that prevent pollution from reaching waterways throughout Virginia. Management practices include stream exclusion systems, which keep livestock out of streams while providing alternative water sources; nutrient management plans, which help ensure farmers use a sustainable amount of fertilizer; and other practices essential to protecting our rivers and streams that reach the Chesapeake Bay.
Another regular threat to the Chesapeake Bay is polluted runoff, which is also referred to as stormwater. This muddy stew of dirt, bacteria, and toxins that runs off streets, roofs, sidewalks, and other hard surfaces is a growing issue in Virginia’s waterways that drain into and pollute the Chesapeake Bay. Because stormwater stems from a wide variety of sources, controlling it requires site-specific strategies.
To address this complex issue, Virginia developed a state and local matching grant program called the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund that helps reduce pollution in local waterways. Over its lifespan, the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund has provided grants to 51 localities for 175 projects across Virginia. This strong and successful program is the perfect mechanism for providing localities with the funds needed to implement projects that will protect their local waterways for generations to come while improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Even though we might not knowingly observe the Agricultural Cost-Share Program or Stormwater Local Assistance Fund at work in our own backyards, they are two of the most effective state programs protecting everything we love about the Chesapeake Bay, including swimming, fishing, boating, and enjoying oysters. Funding these programs is critical to the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.
Recent studies have revealed that federal, state, and local efforts to improve the Chesapeake Bay are working; however, we’re currently facing much uncertainty about whether we’ll see the Bay’s improvement continue or reverse. Governor McAuliffe’s proposed budget, which was released on Monday, December 18, included $22 million for the proven-successful Agricultural Cost-Share Program. While this level of funding will undoubtedly help Virginian farmers implement best management practices, it starkly contrasts the $62 million that was requested, as well as the $100 million assessed need for 2019. The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund did not fare nearly as well, receiving $0 when the need was assessed at $50 million for 2019.
These proposed cuts at the state level are dicey coupled with the cuts recommended at the federal level. President Trump’s proposed budget zeroed out funding for the multi-state Chesapeake Bay Program earlier this year. Congress has also proposed serious cuts to programs like the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and funding to reduce polluted stormwater runoff.
The whole reason we’ve been able to restore the Chesapeake Bay over the past few decades into an economically and recreationally viable resource is because those at the federal, state, and local levels have made its cleanup a top priority. When momentum is lost at any one of these levels, the Chesapeake Bay suffers gravely. Because of this, we look to Senator Mark Warner and Senator Tim Kaine to stand up for funding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which manages Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts at the federal level. At the same time, we look to Virginia’s state legislators on the Senate Finance Committee — including Senator George Barker, Senator Janet Howell, and Senator Dick Saslaw in Northern Virginia — to fully fund the Agricultural Cost-Share Program at $62 million at the state level and the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund at $50 million.
Pat Calvert is the policy and campaigns manager of clean water and land conservation at the Virginia Conservation Network.