Cautious Hope for Environmental Activism

May 26, 2017

How can the environmental community unite to make a difference at the grassroots level?  Answering that question was the goal of the Annual Choose Clean Water Coalition Conference, which convened Wednesday and Thursday in Charlottesville.  And as WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini reports, participants regarded past successes as a guide for the future of environmental activism.

The 8th annual Choose Clean Water Coalition Conference met in Charlottesville for the first time.  Chante Coleman is the director of the coalition, which is made up of 225 non-profit organizations.  She explains the purpose and content of the conference:

CHANTE COLEMAN: This conference is targeted for our coalition members to come and learn about Charlottesville and learn about some of the water quality issues happening here… we go out on field trips and try to see more of the community.

Among the topics of discussion – what the coalition says is real progress in recent years in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and how that progress is now threatened.  The conference featured presentations from around the Bay’s watershed focused on agriculture, communications, collaboration between local communities, climate change, social justice, and inclusion.  That included an update on a new federally coordinated strategy to restore and protect the Bay. It was generated by a 2010 executive order signed by President Obama that ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to set pollution limits on nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in the Bay.

COLEMAN: It's the biggest cleanup of the history of the United States, which is really exciting, and it's been working. We have measured success: The Bay grasses, the blue crabs, the oysters, the rockfish: they're all coming back.

Rich Batuik is the Associate Director for Science, Analysis, and Implementation at the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office. Together with Beth McGee, Director of Science and Agricultural Policy at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he presented an optimistic, yet realistic, mid-point assessment on the program – set to end in 2025. He started with the restoration of underwater grasses:

RICH BATUIK: When we started as a partnership, we were just around 34 thousand acres. We have tripled that, we are close to 100 thousand acres. We've hit and actually exceeded the goal that we set about 15 years. This isn't a weather event, this is at bottom hard work by farmers and municipalities and homeowners out there.

He was also the bearer of good news for nitrogen reduction:

BATUIK: Over the last 30 years we shrank it by 66 million pounds delivered into the Chesapeake. That is a lot of reduction of pollution out there as well. That was the easy part. That was 30 years in the making. What do we have for the next 10? We still have got about another 50 million pounds to go. Are we done? Absolutely not. But are we making progress? Definitely.

BETH MCGEE: Let's get the message out: this is working! The science is working, the Bay is responding. It's working at the Bay level but you know what, it's also working at the local level.

But further progress may become more difficult.  In March, the Trump administration released its spending plan for the 2018 budget year, which would reduce the EPA’s budget by 31% – and completely eliminate the $73 million allotted to the Chesapeake Bay restoration program.

Beth McGee says the fight is not lost:

MCGEE: Congress calls the budget and so we have groups from across the watershed who are reaching out to their congressional members, through this network, to say "funding for this program is important, please restore it.”

And, as James River Association CEO Bill Street says, that advocacy works.

BILL STREET: As we've seen, as we've talked to members of Congress throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the representatives that cover those areas, there is strong support for continuing this program.

Coalition members say that if fully implemented, the ongoing cleanup will ensure "fishable, swimmable" waters – helping to fulfill one promise set in motion by the Clean Water Act 45 years ago.