The watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, right outside Washington, D.C., is the largest estuary in North America and is home to nearly 18 million people and over 3,600 species of animals and plants. The 6 quadrillion gallons (that’s six with 15 zeroes after it) in the Great Lakes — Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Erie — form the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth and are a shipping lifeline that also provide food, water and a living to more than 30 million people living in the lakes’ basin. And smaller lakes and rivers like Lake Cumberland in Kentucky have long been popular fishing holes and summer watering places for millions of people every year.
There’s water, water everywhere in the U.S., but environmentalists say Republicans are washing away years of progress with bad policies. America’s waterways are under threat from funding cuts, deregulation and science-deniers, including President Donald Trump.
Usually, in times of a Republican super-majority, the aim of many government exercises is to save money and appease those citizens who think the government should stay out of their business — even if that means making their lives less pleasant and easy. That cycle is beginning to play out at the local level in conservative strongholds like Kentucky, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state.
Take Kentucky’s Pulaski County. Trash pickup is not mandated in the county, meaning people don’t pay for it in their taxes. That might not seem like a bad thing or a big deal until you know that a percentage of county residents don’t even pay for private rubbish collection, but instead throw their trash in Lake Cumberland or dump it along the roadside or in the rolling hills nearby, according to local reports.
“I’m seeing oil cans, pop bottles, coolers, there’s an antifreeze bottle,” Randy Adams, who has spent many a summer on the shores of the lake since his family acquired a home there in 1972, told WKYT TV’s Miranda Combs for a recent report. “If they could put their trash in a trash can and take it to the curb, it would be easier than finding a place to dump it on a hillside or a creek or a river.”
A senior judge in Pulaski County said that around a third of residents dump their rubbish wherever they please; twice as many pay for private trash pickup. If the county government were to mandate rubbish collection for all, and maybe pay for it with a small local tax, “I think it would definitely help the trash problem,” Steve Kelley, the county’s judge executive, told WKYT. That would help Randy Adams to rediscover the Lake Cumberland he enjoyed in his youth.
But it’s unlikely to happen because, according to the judge, this part of Kentucky is conservative and people “don’t want government telling them they have to do this, or they have to do that.”
Indeed, God forbid that the fish you just caught in Lake Cumberland and are about to fry should be ruined by some federal agency telling you that it’s tainted with mercury, or God forbid that your kid should be prevented from swimming in a lake brimming with E. coli by some government warning. The only thing worse than either scenario would be how sick you’d become from eating mercury-laced fish or the diarrhea your kid would get from exposure to E. coli.
Zeroing Out Waterways
Neither the pollution nor its consequences are inevitable, but when there’s a sustained attack against the environment, both become increasingly likely. The first whiff that the attacks on our waterways were about to be stepped up, after years of fruitful efforts to improve the state of bays, lakes, rivers and other bodies of water, came in March, when the White House released its budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year.
The environment, science and diplomacy all took a huge hit. Several environmental programs, including those concerned with waterways, were summarily axed or had their funding slashed. Programs that have helped restore places like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, making them swim-able, productive destinations that teem with aquatic life, were zeroed out — a uniquely American term that applies to federal and other budgets. An updated draft budget, made public in May, maintained the pledge to defund these waterway programs (totaling over $400 million in cuts), ignoring criticism from the public and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Many of these programs — including in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound in Oregon — appear to have been doomed because they fell under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Trump administration is the bane of the EPA’s existence. Trump-appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt sued the agency 14 times when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, to block air and water protection rules. In Trump’s draft budget for 2018, the arc of the axe is swung widest over the EPA, where the administration proposes chopping the budget by more than 31 percent — the biggest cut to any government agency (in second place is the State Department — also see “Critics Say Trump’s ‘Skinny’ Budget Starves U.S. Diplomacy, Aid at Time of Heightened Need” in the May 2017 issue).
“The Administration is committed to creating a leaner, more accountable, less intrusive, and more effective Government,” a summary of the EPA’s budget says. “The FY 2018 budget eliminates programs that are duplicative or those that can be absorbed into other programs or are state and local responsibilities.”
The rationale for zeroing out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and similar initiatives is that “state and local groups are engaged and capable of taking on management of cleanup and restoration of these water bodies.” But lawmakers from the affected states railed against the cuts, calling them nonsensical and counterproductive.
Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan said he was “extremely concerned that President Trump’s budget proposal makes significant cuts to critical programs that boost Michigan’s working families, support economic development in Michigan’s urban and rural communities and protect the Great Lakes, which are vital to some of our state’s largest industries.”
“Rather than investing in policies that promote manufacturing, support small businesses, strengthen education and drive our economy forward, President Trump’s budget only offers counterproductive cuts that would stifle Michigan’s economic growth and strain the pocketbooks of Michigan families,” Peters said in a statement. “While Congress has a responsibility to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and effectively, any budget passed by Congress must address the needs of middle-class families, seniors and small businesses.”
Democratic Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin lamented that the cuts could undo years of efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay that have brought about positive change. “The Chesapeake Bay Program and related efforts are delivering encouraging results throughout the watershed and have built tremendous momentum moving forward, yet President Trump still targeted them for elimination,” Cardin said in a statement released in April. “Pulling the federal government out of this effective regional partnership makes absolutely no sense to anyone who cares about a healthy economy or a healthy environment.… President Trump’s plan to erase the blueprint for cooperation shows a fundamental failure to understand how restoration of this magnitude best gets done and how the federal government is an essential lynchpin in that effort.”
Republican Congressman Rob Wittman of Virginia called the proposal to do away with the Chesapeake Bay Program “shortsighted and unacceptable.” Nine senators from both parties, representing states along the Chesapeake Bay watershed, sent a letter to colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee urging its members to maintain funding for more than half a dozen programs that have helped to restore the Chesapeake Bay. A similar legislative effort is underway to protect the gains made in the Great Lakes — among them, removing toxic pollutants from harbors and preventing harmful algae outbreaks — thanks to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which was started by President Obama. House appropriators recently released legislation to preserve the $300 million in funding for the program in a direct challenge to Trump. The bill still has to wind its way through both chambers of Congress but appears to enjoy bipartisan support.
In addition to EPA programs, several U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiatives help control runoff from farms that carries animal waste, ammonia, fertilizer chemicals, pesticides, toxins from farm equipment and other harmful substances into bodies of water. These, too, are threatened by budget cuts. Runoff in waterways can result in elevated levels of toxins and chemicals, which cause dead zones — waterways from which living organisms have either fled or died because pollutants have depleted their habitat of oxygen.
This year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — which would see a 16 percent cut under Trump’s budget — predicted that the third-largest dead zone resides in the Gulf of Mexico, breeding ground for the best shrimp in the world. Meanwhile, the dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay is predicted to be nearly the volume of 3.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools, which is also larger than average, according to NOAA. The bay’s dead zones have added up over the years and taken their toll on this cherished waterway, which stretches 200 miles from Havre de Grace, Md., to Virginia Beach. Unregulated overharvesting and waste dumping as well as climate change have also helped to decimate fish populations and entire industries built around them.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, although it still produces about 500 million pounds of seafood per year, the bay’s fishing industry used to harvest tens of millions of bushels of oysters. Today, harvests have fallen to less than 1 percent of historic levels.
Blast from the Past
Today, most Americans take for granted that dipping a toe in the river running through their town or going for a swim at the beach does not pose a health hazard. But that hasn’t always been the case and, as the story of Lake Cumberland shows, is still not always the case.
In 1969, the dangers lurking in America’s waterways vividly came to light when oil-slicked debris and litter on the Cuyahoga River caused it to catch fire as it flowed through Cleveland, Ohio. Although this was not the first time the river had burned, the blaze caught the attention of the media and the public, leading to changes in the way the government viewed its precious water resources. The fire on the water has been credited with, among other things, prodding Congress to create the EPA in 1970 and pass the Clean Water Act in 1972.
A few years before the Cuyahoga fire, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Water Quality Act of 1965. In a speech to mark the occasion, Johnson declared that the new law was a sign that Americans refuse “to be strangled by the wastes of civilization.” The president recalled how George Washington used to stand on his lawn at Mount Vernon and look at the Potomac River, which “was clean and sweet and pure,” and how Theodore Roosevelt used to go swimming in that same river.
“But today the Potomac is a river of decaying sewage and rotten algae. Today all the swimmers are gone,” he said.
Things have improved markedly since the Cuyahoga caught fire and the Potomac was replete with sewage and rotten algae. Today, kayakers, paddle-boarders and canoeists turn the Potomac into a recreational superhighway on sunny weekends — and users no longer fear for their lives if they fall in.
But the erosion of environmental programs in Trump’s proposed budget threatens to undo decades of local, state and federal collaboration to preserve the nation’s myriad rivers, lakes, estuaries, creeks, mountain streams and other vital waterways.
These waterways are home to fragile ecosystems in which one disruption throws off the entire chain. Likewise, the creatures and plants living in these waterways have a delicate, symbiotic relationship with the millions of people who rely on those waterways.
A dirtier Chesapeake Bay would further deplete stocks of crabs and oysters, for example, leading to more expensive Maryland crab cakes, or none whatsoever, and lost jobs for the state’s fishermen. Unhealthy bodies of water also directly impact the health of the humans who live on their banks. An EPA study from the late 1990s found that using chlorine to disinfect water and make it drinkable can produce chemical byproducts that have been shown to be carcinogenic in laboratory animals. The EPA has awarded about $10 million in grants to states and territories since 2001 to develop and implement monitoring and notification programs for the quality of beach water in coastal and Great Lakes recreation waters. And EPA funds have allowed state officials to check for things like fecal matter and E. coli bacteria in the waters that families plunge into on a hot summer day.
Any reverberations can be felt far and wide. The Chesapeake Bay, for example, which was formed about 10,000 years ago when glaciers melted and flooded the Susquehanna River valley, boasts roughly 8,000 miles of shoreline that are part of a much larger ecosystem. When adding its tidal tributaries, the bay actually consists of 11,684 miles of shoreline — more than the entire American West Coast.
In fact, the bay has the largest land-to-water ratio (14 to 1) of any coastal water body in the world, which is why our actions on land have such a big impact on the water’s health. This reliance will only continue to grow. Each year, about 150,000 new people move into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, already home to 18 million people.
The Chesapeake Bay is also arguably the world’s most studied body of water. Government cleanup efforts began in 1983 when it became apparent that the bay’s food chain was in serious danger. It was slow going, with massive fish kills common throughout the 1990s and 2000s, although in recent years, the efforts were making tentative but measurable progress.
At a time when decades of research and work are finally bearing fruit, the Chesapeake Bay cannot afford a year — or several — without federal funding, Marel King, the Pennsylvania director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, told the York Dispatch.
“It takes money and it takes knowledgeable boots on the ground to get the work done,” King told the paper. “We are really concerned about the loss of that scientific information, data-gathering and coordination of the research and information-sharing because good policy doesn’t happen without good information.”
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.