Natty in khakis, a blue button-down shirt, salmon print tie and brown loafers, the senator was on an educational boat tour arranged by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to tout successes in bay cleanup.
In turn, Warner reassured CBF that efforts in Washington and the White House to cut federal funds for bay restoration won’t win without a fight.
“It’s a great success story,” Warner said of bay cleanup so far. “And what would be crazy is, when you can actually see a healthy bay in sight, for us to cut off the federal spigot.”
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would eliminate all federal funds for the Chesapeake Bay Program — the regional partnership formed in 1983 to restore the estuary — while the House Appropriations Committee would slash funding from $73 million to $60 million.
“We could see a clean bay in our lifetime,” Warner said. “And that possibility could disappear if the Trump administration’s budget became a reality. The good news is, that’s probably not going to happen.”
And because the Chesapeake enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate, he expects its budget plan will do better than the House version and get CBP’s budget closer to its current funding.
“We’re going to keep at it until we get the funds restored,” Warner said.
Bay advocates say any reduction would undercut years of effort to reduce nutrients and sediment dumped into the bay and its tributaries — efforts that are only now showing signs of progress.
Earlier this year, in its biennial State of the Bay report, CBF said surveys are beginning to show better water clarity, an abundance of underwater grasses and an uptick in native oysters. The report gave overall bay health a C- grade, the highest since CBF began issuing these reports in 1998.
“But the bay is still in a very fragile state,” said Rebecca LePrell, CBF’s Virginia executive director. “And we know that because we still get algal blooms. (And) in the Newport News area, there are still actually swimming advisories at the beaches because of elevated bacteria levels. So there’s still a lot more work to do.”
The bay’s oyster population is recovering after a long decline caused by disease, pollution and overfishing. And the James River is a big part of that rebound, said LePrell.
While the annual baywide oyster harvest is about 2.9 million bushels, more than half of that, or about 2 million bushels, comes from the James.
“It’s a powerhouse when it comes to oyster yield,” said LePrell.
Just a dozen years ago, said CBF senior scientist Chris Moore, Virginia’s oyster catch was around 20,000 to 30,000 bushels.
“One of the neat stories about that … for years, we’d been shipping in oysters from the Gulf (of Mexico),” said Moore. “About three years ago, we started shipping oysters back to the Gulf, a sign that our oyster industry had arrived.”
Warner also got a lesson in blue crab anatomy from CBF senior Capt. Jimmy Sollner, who provided the senator a boat hook so he could help pull up a couple of crab pots.
Sollner pointed out the different abdominal markings for adult male and female crabs using watermen analogies a senator would appreciate: The male marking looks like the Washington Monument, he said, while the female looks like the Capitol Building.
And when it came time to haul up the trawl net, Warner rolled up his sleeves, tossed his tie over one shoulder and joined others tugging on the long line.
A mishmash of marine life poured from the net into a big water container: crabs, rays, gray trout, summer flounder, sea robin, white shrimp, hogchokers. Warner gamely handled several of them.
More than 18 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which Warner said boasts an economy of about $33 billion overall. More than $3 billion comes from the seafood industry.
“It doesn’t count all the tourism-related dollars and other things affected by clean water,” Warner said. “This has been years in coming.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program is a partnership of federal, state and local governments, along with academic, conservation and citizen groups. Nearly two-thirds of its budget is given to states and localities for anti-pollution projects.
Virginia and other bay states had tried and failed for years to reduce pollutants being dumped into the watershed. But it wasn’t until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instituted a bay “pollution diet,” or total maximum daily loads, in 2010 that progress began.
The TMDLs limit the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that states can dump into the watershed.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are included in runoff from agricultural lands, fertilized lawns and wastewater treatment plants. When these nutrients overload marine systems, they fuel toxic algal blooms that decay and create oxygen-deprived dead zones.
Sediment reduces water clarity, prevents sunlight from reaching and nourishing underwater grassbeds and silts over underwater grasses and the hard bottom substrate that oysters and other species need to survive.
The EPA left it to states to come up with their own management plans to meet their TMDLs.States must meet certain benchmarks every two years, and by this year must have 60 percent of anti-pollution measures in place that will lead to a restored bay. They must have 100 percent in place by 2025.
The Chesapeake estuary is the largest in North America, stretching 64,000 square miles over six states and the District of Columbia. Besides Virginia, bay states are Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.
Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich