Tracking the state of the Chesapeake Bay is a massive undertaking. It involves multiple federal, state, and local government agencies to monitor the health of air, land, water, trees, vegetation, and aquatic life.
Measuring the health of the Gulf can be a daunting mixture of statistics and reports, most of which come from Maryland and six other Gulf jurisdictions (Virginia, West Virginia states, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and the District of Columbia) are doing well. Federal Pollution Control Standard. Others chart the economic health of the Gulf region and its key industries. Government officials focused on the bay interact daily with farmers, sailors, scientists, environmentalists and the tourism industry.
A new administration in Annapolis brings with it a new set of leaders tasked with leading Bay conservation efforts in Maryland. Often working with old hands. And on the rare occasion of Wednesday, they all attended hearings of the House Environment and Transportation Committee in Annapolis, sometimes introducing themselves to lawmakers and offering their views on the health of the bay.
So what was the line-up of officials and other leaders to testify?
There was Selina McIlwain, whom Governor Wes Moore chose to be the secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. There was Josh Kurtz, who had been appointed secretary to the Department of Natural Resources by the Moore administration. and Kevin Atticus, who was nominated as Secretary of Agriculture. All were accompanied for some time by a lieutenant who was in their agency.
Also witnesses: Mark Hoffman, Maryland Commissioner of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, made up of legislative leaders from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and his new boss, the commission’s Executive Director. Anna Kirius. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was also present, with testimony from Acting Director Eric Fisher (a position Kurtz held until recently) and Matthew Stegman, the Foundation’s Maryland Counselor.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently rated the health of the bay a D-plus. A slightly older study at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences gave a C-plus grade. But some coaches said grades were only part of the story.
“The water quality in the bay is improving,” Hoffman said. “Not as fast as we’d like. Not as fast as we’d like. But it’s improving as the population grows.”
Rep. Kumar Baab (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Environmental Transport Commission, said the report did not reflect all the work that went into cleaning the bay.
“I don’t think this D-plus grade will get along with the people in this room,” he said.
In recent months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has admitted that some states are not meeting pollution reduction targets that were supposed to come into force by 2025. The Bay Program says 2025 still represents an “opportunity” for states to act as quickly as possible to meet their mandated goals and think about the future in a more radical way.
McIlwain said Wednesday that Maryland is making “steady progress” in reducing its wastewater load, but that trend will likely decline in 2021 after sewage spills at the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants. On Tuesday, officials in the Baltimore area announced plans to explore new management regimes for the region’s water and wastewater utilities.
McIlwain also criticized the Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC lawsuits filed against the EPA in 2020 for failing to adequately police gulf pollution in upstream states such as Pennsylvania and New York. He said he hopes it will be resolved soon.
“They are in the middle of a solution,” she said.
McIlwain and her fellow cabinet ministers — each of whom has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate — described some of the efforts their agencies are making to ensure the health of the Gulf continues to improve. These efforts range from USDA staff working with farmers on a regular basis to dozens of water monitors maintained statewide by the Department of Natural Resources. Several legislators questioned the Conowingo Dam, where sediment from farms in Pennsylvania and New York flows through the Susquehanna River into the bay.
“The talent and dedication of this room gives us a lot of hope for the future of the bay.
Many of the same leaders will reappear together Thursday afternoon for a briefing before the Senate Education, Energy and Environment Committee.
Editor’s Note: Josh Kurtz’s nomination for Director of Natural Resources is not related to the Maryland Matters reporter of the same name.