One Stat That May Help Us Understand Why Bay Progress Continues to Lag

Evan Isaacson

April 8, 2019

The Chesapeake Bay Program has just compiled its annual data assessing progress toward the watershed-wide pollution reduction target under the Bay restoration framework known as the "Bay TMDL." The bottom line is that recent gains in Bay health could soon be eclipsed by the lagging pace of pollution reductions, with the likely result that the region will fall well short of the Bay TMDL 2025 target date to achieve the reductions needed to restore the Bay's health.

One of the primary causes of this slow pace of progress is that the agencies primarily responsible for Bay restoration simply aren't doing their jobs the way they used to. For example, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) recently released its annual report showing the level of activity enforcing environmental laws. In 2018, the agency reported just 25 actions to enforce the federal Clean Water Act's core regulatory program and the state laws protecting surface waters from illegal pollution.

That's a record low, worse even than the 36 actions in 2017, which itself was a record low after dropping from 61 actions in 2016 and 98 in 2015. It doesn't take complex statistical analysis to see the pattern here. The number of Clean Water Act actions in 2018 was about 75 percent lower than the average between 1999, when the agency began publishing its annual report, and 2015, the year the decline started.

Note: The Water and Science Administration is part of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Core programs include point source, stormwater and erosion control, and wetlands and waterways regulatory programs. The blue bar represents the historic average number of enforcement actions between 1999, when recordkeeping began, and 2015, before the enforcement decline began.

The data also show record lows in other agency programs for groundwater pollution, stormwater management, erosion and sediment control, and wetlands and waterways protection. Put together, these programs represent the core of the agency's efforts to protect the waters that drain to the Chesapeake Bay. And yet the agency took only 42 actions under these programs, a nearly 80 percent drop from the pre-2015 average. We have come to expect such dismal results from Donald Trump's EPA, but not from agencies in Maryland, and certainly not while we're facing up to the herculean challenge of restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

As the recent data from the Bay Program showed, while Bay states have made some progress toward their pollution reduction goals, they still have a long way to go if they're going to reach the 2025 finish line targets for the Bay TMDL. For example, to get from start to finish – 2009 to 2025 – the seven Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions were supposed to reduce a little more than 4 million pounds of nitrogen pollution per year, on average. Instead, the Bay jurisdictions have reached this level just once, with an average annual reduction of less than 2.5 million.

The new 2018 Bay restoration progress data reveal that one state in particular was responsible for the vast majority of the reduction in nitrogen over 2017 levels. Maryland reduced nitrogen pollution by more than 1.4 million pounds, while the seven jurisdictions combined were estimated to reduce only 1.2 million pounds (meaning there was a net increase from the other six jurisdictions). This reduction in nitrogen pollution in Maryland was largely due to the completion of a project to upgrade one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the Bay watershed near Baltimore. The good news for Maryland and the Chesapeake is that an even larger wastewater plant upgrade, also near Baltimore, will soon be completed.

But for most of Maryland's history under the Bay TMDL, nitrogen pollution reductions have crept along slowly, averaging less than 300,000 pounds per year, less than half of the pace needed to meet the state's final 2025 target. Without additional wastewater treatment plant upgrades in the future, this is basically the level of progress we can expect to see again.

Where will the pollution reductions we need to finally restore the Bay come from after that? If MDE once again shows more of a commitment to implementing and enforcing our clean water and Bay restoration laws and programs, could that result in several million fewer pounds of nitrogen pollution in the Bay from Maryland sources? Probably not by itself. But the decline in MDE enforcement actions is a proxy for the larger decline in overall activity at this agency which is critical to restoring the Bay.

While the size of Maryland's general fund budget doubled in the last two decades, the general fund budget for MDE didn't increase a penny. In fact, it declined by 10 percent, even before accounting for inflation.

Note: Maryland’s state general fund budget doubled between fiscal year 2000 and 2018 (99.6% increase) while the general fund budget for MDE decreased on an absolute basis. The percentage of state general funds allocated to MDE has thus decreased by more than 50 percent over this time period.

The share of the state budget going to MDE was never large. Even in its heyday around the turn of the century, MDE only took up less than four-tenths of one percent (0.4 percent) of the state general fund budget. Today, it uses less than two-tenths of a percent (0.17 percent), a decline of more than 50 percent in the overall share of taxpayer funds going to the agency at the forefront of protecting public health and restoring the Chesapeake.

The declining budget means the agency also now has many fewer staff, even as the state population and economy has boomed and the number of state and federal environmental programs has increased to take on enormous challenges like climate change and the restoration of the Bay. And this slow withering of MDE has finally reached such worrying levels that it is now hard to ignore. Last year, nonpartisan legislative staff released a comprehensive two-year study of the condition of the state workforce. The analysts noted problems across the executive branch of Maryland government but found that MDE was among the most critically under-resourced agencies.

And for several years now, appropriators in the General Assembly have released budgets that require MDE to use some of its funding to fill vacancies to address the significant decline in the number of inspection and enforcement staff available to implement and enforce our clean water and Bay restoration laws. But for reasons that are not clear, the funds have not been used. The agency would apparently rather refuse money than use it to enforce the law.

When the agency is asked to explain how it plans to restore the Chesapeake, it often cites a 2015 study by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland that concluded "no new state-based fees or taxes are required moving forward." Interestingly, though, MDE has not seemed to appreciate the caveat immediately following this conclusion, which stated that it is based on the critical assumption that "the current level of environmental regulation[s] that are drivers for pollution reductions will be maintained within each of the four pollution sectors and enforcement will be consistent and effective." Instead, the only thing that has been consistent is the annual drop in enforcement and deregulatory actions.

Maryland has a long way to go to meet its Bay restoration obligations. At more than 6 million pounds of nitrogen, the remaining pollution reduction gap for Maryland is greater than every other state combined, save for Pennsylvania. If Maryland wants to figure out the quickest and least expensive way to get back on track, it should start by simply implementing and enforcing the laws already on the books.

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