Thursday, February 3, 2011

Restoring the Chesapeake Bay and the Federal Budget

On Monday, February 14th 2011 President Obama will deliver to congress his detailed budget request to congress. In these times the budget will face tough examination and debate in congress. The issues will be budget deficits, entitlements, earmarks and the role of the federal government. While there seems to be strong sentiment against earmarks at this time, there is disagreement as to what an earmark is. In truth, we as a country are about to embark on the second debate of Henry Clay’s “American System.” This is was a major issue in the first half of the 19th century. The “American System” was the extensive use of funds from the US Treasury supported by high import tariffs for regional improvements. However, the national system of regional improvements failed due in part to regional jealousies and constitutional squabbles about such expenditures.

This time, the debate will impact the implementation of the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, necessary to achieve the Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL, what the EPA likes to call the pollution diet. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL has been described as "another unfunded federal mandate" by various state officials. During Senator Ben Cardin's presentation addressing the Clean Water Coalition conference, he pushed for the attendees to write their congressional representation to secure funding for the clean up. Let’s back up and look at this view from a different angle.

The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters are impaired by the release of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These pollutants are released from waste water treatment plants, from agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, air pollution and other sources, including septic systems that enter the tributaries and Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.

Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded. Though control of nutrient contamination has improved in all areas of the region, the massive growth of the population of the region over that time has contributed to the problem and overall reductions in nutrient contamination have not come fast enough to meet the goals agreed to by the states and Washington DC. More needs to be done and in addition, all interstate compacts must be approved by congress and since the Chesapeake Bay Watershed covers six states and the District of Columbia, federal action was necessary to create and enforce action. The US EPA has taken control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated TMDL to restore the local waters. The TMDL (finalized at the end of December 2011) allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time.

The benefits of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay accrue to the regional residents not the nation as a whole. Choose Clean Water lists the following benefits that Chesapeake Bay residents may realize when state plans are fully implemented:
•Less flooding, due to restoring and protecting wetlands and vegetative buffers and adding new stormwater controls;
Safer drinking water, especially for the numerous jurisdictions that draw drinking water right from the rivers that flow downtown;
•Improved quality of life for 17 million residents;
•Improved human health;
•Updating of aged sewage treatment infrastructure;
•Increased opportunities for tourism-based businesses;
•Better habitat for land-based and aquatic wildlife, creating fishable waters and more wildlife from migratory waterfowl to otters, game birds and black bears;
•Swimmable waters;
•Improved property values near the cleaner creeks, streams, rivers and Bay. Though there may also be increased job opportunities through infrastructure enhancements, technical assistance needs and new technologies developed to combat pollution, the cost of living in the region and the cost of doing business will increase. The implementation of Phase I of the Virginia WIP is estimated to cost $7 billion over the next 6 years.

EPA set the TMDL goals, but each state and the district created their own plans for meeting those goals. Certainly, federal coordination was necessary for technical advice and allocation of the nutrient budget, but the costs of the remediation should be born by the residents of the area. Every region has its own problems; however, the price of abusing the environment is hidden if we look to the federal budget to pay for the remediation of the Chesapeake Bay or any other region. It is undemocratic and unfair.

We in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed will benefit from the remediation and we the citizens of the region should pay for it. In Virginia this $7 billion dollars to meet the 2017 TMDL represents more than $1,500 for every person living within the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. To put this in perspective, the state would have to add a Chesapeake Bay surcharge to every property tax bill within the watershed for the next 6 years of $1,000 or more per household. I leave it up to our states and counties to determine how they will have me, my neighbors and Senator Cardin pay for our shares of this necessary remediation.

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