Continuing Resolution Threatens Progress in Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

Rider attached to budget bill would block science-based restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed

04-06-2011 // Max Greenberg
Pier on Chesapeake Bay

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed its Continuing Resolution (CR) in February to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, it represented a substantial setback for environmental protection--and perhaps the opening salvo of a broader, politically fraught anti-regulation push.

So says Nathan Lott, Executive Director of the Virginia Conservation Network and one of the 44 National Wildlife Federation affiliate partners who recently signed a letter urging members of Congress to oppose the CR.

But for Lott, a board member for Virginia's State Environmental Leadership Program, former employee of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and author of "60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Richmond," it signaled something more: that he and his son, now five years old, might not be able to eat the fish they catch near Lott's home in Richmond for much longer.

"I was with him at the store, looking at fishing poles […] and I was thinking, 'Well, how long will there be fish to catch or eat?'" said Lott. "Will it be that way five years from now, (or) when he has his own kids?"

His concerns appear well-justified. Despite recent momentum in conserving the area's resources, the Chesapeake Bay watershed, home to some 17 million people in parts of six different states and a source of drinking water, could be in for hard times as a result of a portion of the CR intended to block science-based restoration of the 64,000-square-mile area, which is also prime fishing and hunting territory.

The final bill includes a rider offered by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to block efforts to clean the Chesapeake Bay. It would forbid the use of funds in the act "to develop, promulgate, evaluate, implement, provide oversight to, or backstop total maximum daily loads [TMDL] or watershed implementation plans for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed"---in effect, opening the floodgates for polluters.

The Influence of Corporate Agribusiness

Pollution in the Chesapeake has led to environmental deterioration, negative health effects for local communities and damage to the economy. Still, corporate agribusiness is opposed to cleanup plans. In addition to spending tens of millions to lobby politicians, its major stakeholders have personally pushed for the rider and attempted to stymie Bay cleanup by filing suits in state and federal courts.

According to Lott, the backlash against regulation has ultimately made Clean Water Act implementation "a whipping boy, especially for agriculture [interests]."

Fish Kill

The Chesapeake region is well-acquainted with the consequences of careless environmental stewardship. Major fish-kills have swept the Shenandoah River in recent years, and algae blooms turned the James River into "foul acres of green or red algae literally sucking the life out of" the water. Elsewhere, in the town of Hopewell, taps spat "foul water" as a result of a bloom in the Appomattox River. Experts say such incidents are at least partially attributable to run-off nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural and industrial sources.

An 'Insulting' Attack on Restoration Programs

According to Lott, Chesapeake Bay restoration programs to address these and other concerns are "a long overdue step for wildlife, homeowners and cities." Restricting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to implement them, especially in the form of riders that have little to do with fiscal discipline, is "surreptitious and insulting" to members of the Virginia Conservation Network--a reactionary political attack launched at the worst possible time and at the expense of average citizens.

As for the pretense that tough budget cuts need to come from somewhere, Lott refers critics to projections that suggest the CR ultimately does not chip away at the deficit.

“In terms of financial debate, this is just a political football. It's like, 'We're with you against too much overreach,’ but this didn't save taxpayers a dime,'” Lott said. "We don't want to leave our kids a broke country, but we also don't want to leave them a polluted country. And it's a false dichotomy to say we have to choose."

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