The Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, has provided almost $10 million in grants for watershed restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay aimed at improving water quality and enhancing climate resilience.
The 10 grants, announced and awarded by the foundation earlier this month, will also go toward restoration of aquatic and terrestrial habitat for at-risk species. They are expected to leverage more than $9.4 million in matching contributions, for a total conservation impact of over $19 million.
Evan Isaacson, senior attorney and research director for the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, a regional nonprofit providing legal services to protect the estuary, said the grants would fund important local projects, such as a nearly $2.5 million award to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay for vegetative environmental buffers to improve regional water quality.
But even more important than the grants for restoring the bay, streams and wetlands, Isaacson said, are proper implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act and state water pollution control laws.
To that end, Isaascon said, a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee found that watershed restoration efforts have been offset by massive growth in nutrient inputs to the watershed from mainly agricultural runoff. “Investments like these are critical, but just one piece of the overall puzzle,” he said of the new grants.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $238 million for restoration of the bay over five years to fund regional, bay-wide programs covering Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction (INSR), Small Watershed Grants and the Most Effective Basins.
“These projects represent a portion of the generational investments that the Biden Administration is making in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Adam Ortiz, the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic regional administrator. “Each one of them will improve not just the local environment where the projects are located, but the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem downstream by removing runoff pollution, cleaning up streams and rivers and planting native trees and grasses.”
Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, said that the grants will advance “on-the-ground, voluntary and community-based approaches to accelerate water quality improvements for the bay and its tributary rivers and streams.”
The grants will enhance resilience for the bay’s human and wildlife communities and help restore vital living resources across the bay watershed, he added.
In a July report, the EPA’s Inspector General listed several factors responsible for the nonattainment of 2025 Bay Restoration Goals. One was the EPA’s own lack of leadership in rallying support behind regional efforts to contain pollution and prevent its fouling of the bay’s tributaries, especially from nonpoint pollution sources such as agricultural and industrial runoff. The agency did not adopt a strategy that factored in new challenges to its pollution control efforts, such as climate change, the report added.
“The Chesapeake Bay Program is not on track to have all controls and practices in place by 2025 to meet its Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for excess nutrients,” the report said. “The EPA has not yet led Chesapeake Bay Program partners to adopt new goals or update deadlines that will more accurately reflect the time necessary to address the remaining sources of pollution covered by the TMDL.”
In response, Ortiz, the Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, questioned those findings in a letter and said the EPA IG’s “report did not correct several of the factual inaccuracies in the draft,” and that the EPA does not have authority to impose a new strategy on nine signatory parties to the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
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“EPA has limited authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate or manage nonpoint sources,” the letter stated, and added that the EPA Region 3 office “cannot commit to a date for when such a strategy would be developed, adopted, and/or implemented.”
Ortiz’ letter wrapped up by acknowledging the “challenges in meeting the partnership’s 2025 water quality goals and is currently engaged in efforts to make progress between now and 2025, as well as beyond 2025.”
Betsy Nicholas, vice president of programs at the nonprofit Potomac Riverkeeper Network, said bay restoration depends upon strong legal enforcement. “Voluntary measures alone will never be enough to protect our water quality,” she said. “We have strong laws on the books but they are not being enforced.”
Since 2022, the Chesapeake Bay Program has invested $30 million in infrastructure funding towards restoration efforts in the watershed’s most effective basins. More than half of that funding has gone towards agriculture conservation practices to help reduce harmful farm runoff from impacting local rivers and streams and the Bay.