ANNAPOLIS — By Tuesday morning the 2019 legislative session will have concluded and a new set of laws will be lined up to take effect later in the year. Amid the frenzied race to move bills through two branches of government in 90 days, however, it can be difficult to stop and see the long game that is actually being played.
The release of the annual Bay Barometer report by the Chesapeake Bay Program on Tuesday snaps into focus the longer reaching ways legislation actually works. In 2014, the six states and Washington, D.C., in the Chesapeake Bay watershed signed an agreement to a series of indicators and goals to work on together to restore the bay by 2025.
One of those goals was to restore fish and shellfish in the watershed and bay. Five years later, the lowly oyster has become a centerpiece of controversy in Maryland.
Lawmakers spent a substantial amount of time this session debating a bill that specifies the location of five oyster sanctuaries in Maryland. The harvest of oysters and their seed will be banned in sanctuaries in order to restore a portion of the historic population of this critical water-filtering species to achieve the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Oystermen sat in the balcony on multiple days during the state Senate’s debate of the bill. To them, the legislation could have profound impacts on their lives and businesses. The story told in the bay report, however, is a different one. It shows Maryland’s progress on oyster restoration as being ahead of Virginia’s with 716 acres of oyster reefs restored by 2017, compared with the 480 acres in Virginia waters.
In reality, these are two sides of the same story as the state marches toward the goals of a larger vision, which is underpinned by an even larger piece of federal law that binds the seven jurisdictions to a unified goal to reduce nutrient pollution in the bay known as the Total Maximum Daily Load.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) intervened on Thursday night and vetoed the bill.
“My administration has been, and will continue to be, the strongest advocate for oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay. Science has proven that sanctuaries are an important and effective tool to manage and restore our oyster fishery, and to protect the health of the Bay,” Hogan wrote.
“[The bill] circumvents that progress and demonstrates outright contempt for those who were asked to work together to arrive at a consensus solution over the past four years. Sadly, this is occurring just as we were making measurable progress,” he added.
Lawmakers could still vote to override the governor’s veto and right the legislation, which passed with a veto-proof majority in both chambers initially.
Frederick County has publicly grappled to balance federal, state and local legislative priorities for two years as it has tried to determine how best to manage the Monocacy River, which is a tributary of the Potomac River that flows into the bay.
On one side is the agricultural community, which is frustrated by years of increasing standards at the state and federal level to control nutrients use and reporting on their properties. On the other, environmental watchdogs who have raised concerns that focusing on just the one river, and not the local watershed, could impede actual results.
At the end of the day both groups are asking the same question: How much nutrients will reach the bay?
Approximately 240 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.7 million pounds of phosphorus and 4.3 billion pounds of sediment reached the Chesapeake Bay in 2017, according to the report. When averaged across three years, the bay attained the highest water quality standards on record; however, those amounts still far exceed the Total Maximum Daily Load set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the watershed is striving to meet by 2025.
Locally, people have been waiting for two years for the Frederick County Council and Carroll County Board of Commissioners to reach a consensus on how to manage the river. Even if consensus is found, however, it will not stop the state or federal march toward the larger legislative goals.
On April 12, the Maryland Department of the Environment is scheduled to release its draft Watershed Implementation Plan that will address the state’s water quality deficits and assign agriculture, wastewater and urban stormwater new goals and restrictions to meet the Total Maximum Daily Load by 2025.
Already, Maryland farmers were told they collectively will need to keep 2.4 million more pounds of nitrogen from reaching the bay to reach the state’s goals.
Hogan and congressional lawmakers announced their intent last week to announce to seek $90 million in federal funding to continue the restoration of the bay. President Donald Trump (R) has proposed cutting funding for the cleanup from the federal budget instead.
The one concerning variable that is beyond the control of legislation already enacted by the federal, state and local governments, however, is climate change.
The bay report shows the average air temperature in Maryland east of Catoctin Mountain has risen between 2 and 3 degrees between 1901 and 2017. The long-term increases to air temperature are statistically significant, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data in the report.
As air temperatures have gone up, so has the water temperature in 27 of the 72 stream sites across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to the report. The increase to water temperature was also statistically significant, with an average increase of 2.1 degrees.
To address this emerging threat, the Chesapeake Bay Program agreed to a three-part climate strategy in March 2018. The first phase will include the states adding a narrative strategy in their 2019 Watershed Implementation Plans on how to address these climate change factors.
The bay program will then look more closely into the impacts of climate change and identify research needs and refine nutrient load estimate for March 2021.
Finally, the program will roll what has been learned between 2019 and 2021 into an addendum to the Watershed Implementation Plans to reach 2025.