Some might be surprised to see us joining forces.
One of us is president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, and the other is the Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
In recent years, we’ve had differences on fisheries policies that have seen us on opposite sides of controversial debates. But we’ve always been on the same side in the fight for clean water. Improving the Bay’s water quality means more fish, more crabs, a better economy and healthier communities.
That’s why, earlier this month, the Maryland Watermen’s Association signed onto a notice of intent with CBF to potentially file a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to do what is required under the Clean Water Act and Chesapeake Bay Agreement. The decision to partner on this endeavor was not an easy one, but it was made deliberatively. This effort focuses on improving the health of the Bay and its famed fisheries.
Maryland watermen along with the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have suffered for many years. Pollution, waste and debris flowing from upstream states comes down the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay. This creates red tides, low oxygen levels and dead zones, threatening the survival of oyster larvae, crabs, clams and fish. EPA is not holding Pennsylvania and New York accountable for putting forth deficient plans that will fail to reach the pollution reduction goals outlined in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. The two states’ inadequate plans are putting the entire cleanup at risk of failing before the 2025 deadline.
We’ve been down this road before. Previous clean-up agreements failed because no overseeing entity promised to use its enforcement powers. That was supposed to change with the new blueprint, which took effect in 2011, because EPA committed to use its authorities under the Clean Water Act to hold jurisdictions accountable. The agency has the power to withhold grants or force the states to upgrade wastewater treatment plants to meet the goals, among other options.
Yet, the EPA has chosen to do next to nothing. That’s despite Pennsylvania and New York submitting plans that fail to achieve clean-up goals.
In Pennsylvania’s case, the state needs more than $300 million per year to install environmental improvements to put it back on track. On the ground in Pennsylvania, conservationists, anglers and many others have been working to plant tree buffers, reduce fertilizer use, add cover crops and upgrade urban stormwater management to reduce polluted runoff from farms and cities. However, the state lacks a sufficient, dedicated funding source to accelerate these improvements, and efforts to create one routinely fail in the legislature.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Virginia have spent billions of dollars investing in the Bay cleanup. EPA’s own assessments show these states are on track to meet their clean water goals by 2025. Maryland’s agriculture cost share program helps farmers plant cover crops and add natural filters such as trees to their land. Stormwater fees in both states have helped cities and towns reduce runoff from roads, parking lots and buildings. The investments are starting to pay off — over time more crabs, fish and oysters are returning to the Bay, and underwater grasses are rebounding. And on the water — despite heavy rain in recent years — we’ve seen the improvements for ourselves.
Yet those efforts to restore the Bay will not succeed if New York and Pennsylvania don’t do their fair share. More than 50% of the freshwater that enters the Bay comes from the Susquehanna River, which crosses through these two states. When heavy rains hit the region, it’s easy to see the lack of progress in cleaning up the Susquehanna and its tributaries. Satellite photos show plumes of sediment clouding the northern portion of the Bay near the river due to polluted runoff. Those visible plumes carry large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that later fuel toxic algal blooms causing marine life to suffocate from a lack of dissolved oxygen.
Clean water is crucial for the Bay region’s economy. The region’s fisheries, tourist areas and agriculture depend on clean water and air. A 2014 study determined that meeting the blueprint’s pollution reduction goals would increase annual economic benefits in the region by $22 billion, including a $6.2 billion increase in Pennsylvania and $1.9 billion in New York.
Watermen and CBF are coming together at this crucial time because of clean water’s importance to the people we represent. We hope elected officials in New York and Pennsylvania will accelerate work to honor their previous commitments to the cleanup. Despite EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s attempts to label our effort frivolous, we know this case represents our best chance to save the cleanup from failure. We’ve already seen that public pressure isn’t enough. It’s time for EPA to act and ensure the 2025 pollution reduction goals are met in every state. That’s why we’re working together to make that happen.
Robert T. Brown is president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. Alison Prost is Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.