With fate of the Chesapeake Bay on the line, Pa. needs to up its game, advocates say

Bird and marsh grass along the Chesapeake Bay. (Image via the Virginia Office of Natural Resources).

(*This story was updated at 4:05 p.m., on 1/5/21, with comment from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection)

Environmental advocates sounded a stark warning Tuesday about the long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay, saying Pennsylvania needs to live up to its commitments to help clean up the sprawling and scenic waterway.

“If Pennsylvania does not meet its obligations … the Chesapeake Bay will never be saved,” William C. Baker, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said during a conference call unveiling an annual report on the bay’s environmental health.

The foundation’s State of the Bay report, which measures the waterway’s health across 13 indicators, gives the Bay an overall grade of D-plus, unchanged from the last report, finding declines across four of those indicators. And “while concerning, the decline is largely due to ineffective management of the Bay’s striped bass population, as opposed to water quality concerns,” the report concluded.

The meter is running. The six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia — have until 2025 to meet the goals of a decade-long, Obama-era document known as the  Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, which aims to reduce pollution in the bay, as well as surrounding rivers and streams.

That includes the Susquehanna River, which originates in New York and runs through the heart of central Pennsylvania before emptying into the bay. And a healthy Susquehanna is “absolutely critical to a healthy bay,” Baker told journalists Tuesday.

“The Susquehanna River provides 50 percent to the fresh water entering the bay,” Baker observed.

*Jamar Thrasher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the Capital-Star that the agency believes “the commonwealth (not just DEP, as this effort is larger than that) will meet the 2025 goals.”

Advocates heaped blame on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accusing it of abdicating its responsibilities during the Trump administration. The Republican White House spent four years rolling back clean water and clean air protections.

In September, officials in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. sued the EPA in federal court, accusing the agency of violating the Clean Water Act by failing to enforce Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction limits for upstream-states Pennsylvania and New York.

The “EPA’s refusal to enforce Clean Water Act puts the entire restoration at risk. We will not back down until all Bay states are held accountable for their pollution reduction requirements,” Baker said.

But that “doesn’t exonerate the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which has been reluctant to provide assistance to farmers that MD and VA have provided to their farmers. We’re not blaming farmers. They have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to put practices in place if they get the assistance their colleagues in Maryland and Virginia have received,” Baker continued.

Pennsylvania needs to spend $324 million a year to meet its clean-up obligations, advocates said Tuesday. That funding could come solely from Keystone State taxpayers, or it could be a blend of state and federal money.

The federal Chesapeake Bay Program is set to get an extra $2.5 million next year, despite a request by President Donald Trump that its current $85 million budget be slashed to $7.3 million, the Virginia Mercury, a sibling site of the Capital-Star, reported in December.

Another provision provides $3 million for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network run by the National Park Service that provides financial and technical support for public access throughout the watershed “to help connect people to the natural and cultural heritage of the Chesapeake region,” the Mercury reported.

Baker told journalists Tuesday that he’s “optimistic” that President-elect Joe Biden, who has roots in both Pennsylvania and Delaware, will be a champion for cleaning up the bay — as he was while serving as vice president and as a U.S. senator from Delaware for decades before that.

“There is broad scientific consensus that Chesapeake Clean Water blueprint is our best, possibly last c chance to saving the environment,” Baker said. “We have the opportunity to make saving the Chesapeake Bay the greatest environmental success story the world has ever seen. With five years remaining, the 18 million people who live in the watershed must demand enforcement.”

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press