The Bulletin

Northam, bay state governors propose $1 billion federal investment in Chesapeake Bay cleanup

By: - May 13, 2021 1:49 pm

Snowy egrets and mallard on eroding marsh near Poplar Island in Talbot County, Md., on May 20, 2010. (Photo by Alicia Pimental/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam joined other state leaders in the Chesapeake Bay watershed Thursday to call for a $1 billion federal investment in the decades-long cleanup of the nation’s largest estuary, which is facing a 2025 deadline for major pollution reductions. 

This “significant and much needed infusion of new funds … will jumpstart the final phase of Bay restoration and put people to work building clean water infrastructure, including green infrastructure that will reduce stormwater and agricultural water pollution, the restoration of natural landscapes and helping us adapt to the impacts of climate change,” the letter touting the “Billion for the Bay Initiative” states. 

Along with Northam, who currently chairs the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, the request was signed by the governors of Maryland, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and Virginia Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who chairs the Chesapeake Bay Commission. 

Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said the intent was for the $1 billion in federal money to “be leveraged by additional state, local and private dollars with the goal of advancing each state-specific cleanup plan.”

“This would be one-time funding, with the recognition that it would be rolled out over the next few years,” she wrote in an email.

Chesapeake Bay states are just four years out from the 2025 deadline for meeting pollution reduction targets set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Excess amounts of these nutrients and sediments have over the years significantly harmed water quality in the Chesapeake Bay by contributing to an overgrowth of algae and clouding water clarity. Together, these effects prevent underwater plants from growing and deplete oxygen, eventually causing die-offs of aquatic life. 

Since the EPA established “pollution diets” for bay states in 2010, Virginia and other affected jurisdictions have poured hundreds of millions into cleanup efforts. Major funding streams have gone toward wastewater plant upgrades, stormwater infrastructure and incentives and assistance to help farmers reduce polluted runoff from agricultural lands. 

In a statement, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation noted that Pennsylvania, in particular, is far off track and that much of any new funding should go there.

“To finish the job, EPA leadership must embrace the Clean Water Act’s mandates and hold the states accountable. Pennsylvania’s current plan only achieves 75 percent of its nitrogen pollution reduction goal and has a self-identified shortfall of more than $300 million annually. The vast majority of the pollution reduction needed must come from Pennsylvania. The majority of this new funding must be directed toward the commonwealth,” the group’s president, William Baker, said in a statement.

Letter signatories argued that bay states have borne “the lion’s share of fiscal responsibilities” for the cleanup but now face constrained budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Many individuals, including farmers and ratepayers who must share in the cost of these upgrades, are also struggling,” they wrote.

Based on a 2016 analysis by the Water Environment Federation and WateReuse Association, the letter estimated that every $1 million invested in clean water infrastructure has the potential to create more than 16 jobs. 

This story has been updated with additional information from the governor’s office.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.