Earlier reports that Donald Trump wants to slash federal funds for Chesapeake Bay cleanup from $73 million a year to $5 million were too optimistic — the president's newly released fiscal year 2018 budget plan shows he wants to eliminate that money entirely.
Trump's "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again" reflects his oft-stated intention to beef up the military, national security and immigration enforcement, address violent crime and build a wall along the Mexican border.
To fund those efforts, Trump wants to slash foreign aid and domestic programs, including chopping 31 percent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget.
His plan, released by the Office of Management and Budget, specifically eliminates $427 million in EPA funding for "regional efforts" such as the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and leaves it to state and local governments to fund them instead.
"Every agency and department," Trump writes in his budget message to Congress, "will be driven to achieve greater efficiency and to eliminate wasteful spending."
The plan was immediately blasted as "madness" by the director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"It just makes no sense," said CBF head Will Baker in a phone call Thursday morning with reporters. "To be absolutely frank, we are in disbelief. The EPA role in the cleanup for the bay is nothing less than fundamental.
"We will fight with every fiber in our bodies to see that Congress rejects this bay budget and maintains the program that has achieved so much and is poised to save one of the world's greatest natural resources."
The bay watershed stretches over portions of six states and the District of Columbia, and enjoys bipartisan support in Congress to restore it after decades of polluted runoff.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said in a statement Thursday that there's "already bipartisan agreement that President Trump's harmful budget will be a nonstarter in Congress."
"Just weeks after President Trump promised us clean water and air in his joint address to Congress," Kaine said, "he released a budget that completely eliminates the Chesapeake Bay Program and radically cuts funding for the agency that protects water resources like the James River and monitoring sea level rise in Hampton Roads."
The Chesapeake Bay Program is the regional partnership of federal, state and local governments, academic groups and nonprofits formed in 1983 to clean up the bay. EPA leads and funds the CBP, which gives about two-thirds of its $73 million budget to state and local clean water efforts.
Until the EPA put bay states on a "pollution diet" in 2010 and required them to install anti-pollution measures, the bay health wasn't improving. Since then, recent studies show the water is getting cleaner, bay grasses are resurging and iconic species such as oysters and blue crabs are starting to recover from devastating crashes in population from overfishing, pollution and disease.
The bay is considered a valuable economic engine for the region and supports thousands of jobs, particularly in commercial fishing and tourism. The dockside value of bay oysters in 2013-14 was nearly $44 million — $28 million of that in Virginia, according to the most recent figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A CBF study estimated that a clean bay generates $22 billion a year in economic benefits.
If the Trump budget were implemented, Baker said, "there's a very real chance that the bay will revert to a national disgrace, with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shellfish and waterborne diseases that pose a real threat to human health.
"Commercial fisheries would inevitably decline," he added, "if the restoration programs are cut as proposed. You'll see less fish, less oysters, less crabs in the bay, and that'll happen very quickly."
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner called the bay plan "incredibly shortsighted." He said he'll work with his colleagues in the region to urge rejecting it.
"And ensure we don't endanger the years of progress that have been made in restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay," Warner said.
Baker said his group had been unable to reach new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on the plan. Pruitt had sued the EPA numerous times while attorney general of Oklahoma, including a failed challenge to EPA's authority to impose a pollution diet on bay states. In January, Pruitt assured senators during confirmation hearings that he supported and was committed to enforcing bay cleanup.
Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said he worked on the bay in the 1960s as a graduate student and watched its deterioration. Only after decades of effort, he said, did they start seeing the "first real signs of recovery."
"It's unconscionable that Congress would let that all slip away by terminating it," said Boesch.
"This is only the front of the war," he added. "There's a broader war because this budget also proposes either elimination or reduction of very essential programs such as agricultural investments."
Such cuts could undermine food safety and programs that help farmers fund best management practices that keep agricultural runoff from polluting the bay, he said.
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.