President signs bill with aid for bay

Spending measure allots $200 million for cleanup, but 2007 amount cut 23%

December 27, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The omnibus spending bill that President Bush signed into law yesterday provides more than $200 million to clean up the Chesapeake Bay - but still far less than last year's allocation and well short of the amount that bay advocates say is needed to address the bay's pollution.

The biggest cut to the cleanup effort involves the State Revolving Loan Fund, which provided money for governments to upgrade their sewage-treatment plants.

Funding for the six states in the bay region dropped by $44 million, to about $151 million for the 2008 budget, according to an analysis that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released yesterday. That's a decline of 23 percent.

The cuts come as the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed spend millions to upgrade wastewater plants. Maryland established a "flush tax" in 2004 that raises about $65 million a year to upgrade sewage treatment plants.

This year, Virginia committed $250 million to upgrade its plants, and Pennsylvania recently enacted a tax credit program to encourage farmers to reduce pollution through conservation.

"All the states are stepping up to the plate and coming up with new money," said Douglas Siglin, the foundation's federal affairs director. "We have this agreement to clean up the bay by 2010, and even though it looks like we're not going to make it at this point, the states are still trying hard. The reductions in federal money send their own signal: that the federal government is not a full partner."

The loan fund allowed states to borrow money at low interest to finance upgrades to sewage treatment plants and then pay it back so that the pot of money would grow a bit each year.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican and longtime advocate for the bay, said he was not involved in the spending decisions, but that those who were had to make enough cuts so the president would sign the bill.

States' role

Gilchrest said they likely reasoned that trimming the fund wouldn't have a major impact on the bay because state programs are available.

"I think the cuts are significant, because it wasn't enough money to begin with," he said. "When you consider that the health of the Chesapeake Bay is being steadily, relentlessly degraded because of human activity, what is needed is a huge influx of several billion dollars."

Gilchrest said he would spend those billions to purchase land - saving it from development and reducing runoff and pollution from septic systems.

Service cut by a third

The spending bill also cut about a third of the money allocated to the National Resource Conservation Service, an agency that helps farmers implement pollution-control measures such as cover crops and buffers. In 2007, the service received $6 million. In 2008, it will get $4.3 million.

"Obviously, we can't afford any cuts in agriculture," said Jim Gracie, an environmental consultant and founding member of the state's Trout Unlimited chapter. "We don't have enough money to that program as it is."

Bay advocates have been pressing for more funds to help farmers. They're looking to the federal Farm Bill, which Congress is expected to take up early next year. It could provide up to $500 million for conservation over the next five years - all of it new funding.

The spending bill that Bush signed yesterday was not kind to other bay programs. Virginia lost all of its federal oyster restoration money, although Maryland will get $1.7 million a year - a little more than half of what it received in 2007.

Research programs

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's analysis says the bill discontinued several federal research programs, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's blue crab and nonnative oyster initiatives and an Army Corps of Engineers' bay-grasses program.

A few education and tourism programs saw increased appropriations.

The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a series of kiosks that help tourists navigate bay attractions, saw its funding double, from $739,000 this year to $1.7 million next year. The Environmental Protection Agency will have $2 million more for bay restoration grants.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will get increased funding - including $414,000 in new teacher-training money. Siglin said the extra money for his organization in no way reduces the pain of losing so much in the final bill.

"Education is a very important thing," he said. "We're grateful. But we've got to have the increases in education, in research and also in pollution reduction budgets. And the thing that we're focused on primarily is the fact that programs that actually fund sewage pollution reduction and agricultural runoff reduction were reduced this year."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

Bay Funding by the Numbers

omnibus spending bill that President Bush signed yesterday included significant cuts in funding for Chesapeake Bay restoration programs, and a few increases. Here are some comparisons between 2007 and 2008:

State loan fund for sewage-treatment upgrades (includes money for the six bay states - Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Delaware)

2007: $195 million

2008: $151 million

National Resource Conservation Service assistance to help farmers control pollution

2007: $6 million

2008: $4.2 million

Chesapeake Bay Foundation teacher training

2007: none

2008: $414,000

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