Legislative Round-Up: 7 Clean Water Advocacy Updates from 2019

4 Policy Triumphs and 3 On-going Battles for Watershed Warriors to Know

Potomac Conservancy Policy Director, Caitlin Wall, and Potomac Conservancy President, Hedrick Belin, Advocating for clean Water on Capitol Hill

Potomac Conservancy Policy Director, Caitlin Wall, and Potomac Conservancy President, Hedrick Belin, Advocating for clean Water on Capitol Hill

There are many fronts on which to fight for the future of the Potomac River. Federal funding matters, but state and local policies sometimes matter more in protecting our drinking water, wildlife, and watershed.

As a a nonpartisan 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the Potomac Conservancy doesn’t pick sides (we like clean water, not mud-slinging!). We work with leaders on both sides to protect the land, forests, streams and air that add up to a healthy river.

We’re only 6 months into 2019, but with the help of our advocates, we’ve had victories in Maryland, Virginia, and at the federal level! Some battles still need to be won, so get prepared with this brief rundown of the issues, and be ready to vote in your next local election- we can’t do it without you.

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Victory! Clean Water Funding Secured in Virginia

The Virginia General Assembly convened for its regular 30-day session in January 2019. One of our top priorities in Virginia is full funding for clean water programs, especially on-the-ground projects. The Assembly session was the usual roller coaster, but we came out celebrating:

  • $10 million for storm-water local assistance funding

  • $74 million for the water quality improvement fund

  • and nearly $90 million for agricultural best management practices!

Did you know? Virginia is holding statewide elections this year. If you’re a resident, be sure to register before the deadline and vote in the general election on November 5th!

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Victory! Maryland Bans Styrofoam

Maryland will become the first state (DC already has a ban) to ban “expanded polystyrene foam” (better known as Styrofoam) when a new law becomes effective on July 1, 2020 (Maine’s ban will go into effect in 2021). The statewide ban will outlaw this toxic plastic product from the food service industry (think cups, takeout containers, etc.). The legislation passed with bipartisan support and will become law without Governor Hogan’s signature.

Our volunteers constantly pick up little bits of Styrofoam throughout the Potomac Watershed, so we’re happy to see this pesky pollution source on it’s way out!

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Victory! Improved Conservation Funding in Federal Farm Bill

Earlier this year, Congress passed the $867 billion Farm Bill- yes, billion with a “B”! The final Farm Bill maintained overall funding levels for all conservation programs and harmful environmental language was stripped from the final bill.

We saw improvements in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), where funding was increased from $100 to $300 million annually. We also saw improvements to the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) which supports critical forest buffer plantings. As we saw in our Potomac River Report Card last year, forest buffer plantings need all the help they can get!

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Victory! Closing Loopholes in Maryland’s Forest Protection

Speaking of forests, we supported a suite of three bills to strengthen the Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act – two of which were passed by the General Assembly.

The first bill (HB 272/SB 234) will correct problems with the Act’s Fee-in-Lieu program (i.e. money that developers pay for cutting down trees). Local governments will now be required to use these fees to responsibly fund reforestation and mitigation efforts- for which they must publicly disclose their plans. They will also be required to submit public plans for tracking the money, its collection, and its usage. These legislative solutions will create more public transparency and ensure that money intended for forest mitigation projects is spent in a timely fashion.

The second bill (HB 735/SB 729) will establish a new Task Force and technical study to assess the amount of forest cover and tree canopy in Maryland. For years, opposing interest groups debated these vital measurements. The Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology will lead this effort and we look forward to seeing the results!

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We’ll get ‘em next time: Defining Forests in Maryland

The final bill in our Forest Conservation Act package did not pass. This bill would have corrected a state policy goal definition of forests by clarifying that “no net loss of forests” means retaining 40% of forest coverage statewide. While this sounds like a wonky detail, the current definition (the one we tried to fix) literally confuses forests for trees and establishes a “no net loss” goal that is well below the 40% goal.

Even though the bill would not have created any new or additional legal or regulatory requirements, it faced heavy opposition from special interest groups.

Marylanders overwhelmingly support saving our remaining forests – a 2019 Opinion Works, LLC poll conducted on behalf of the Choose Clean Water Coalition found that 87% of registered voters agreed that “The state legislature should set a goal to save Maryland’s remaining forests and strengthen the laws that protect trees, even if it means slowing growth and development”. While we were unsuccessful at clarifying and strengthening the law this year, we’ll be back in 2020 for another round!

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Too Soon To Tell: Drafting Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprints

The states of the Chesapeake Bay watershed are currently drafting “Watershed Implementation Plans” (Phase III WIPs). These blueprints which will detail how each state intends to meet the 2025 goals of the Chesapeake “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL)- also known as it’s pollution diet. We are particularly interested in the WIPs for Maryland and Virginia.

Pollution entering the Bay from through stormwater is increasing, and we’re disappointed that Maryland’s plan isn’t focused on this growing threat. The state needs long-term solutions that address local pollution issues and to increase the pace of stormwater projects, including nature-based solutions. Instead, the state is proposing to utilize wastewater treatment plant upgrades and annual agricultural practices to meet its 2025 pollution goals. Localized flooding and the climate emergency are intensifying the impact of polluted stormwater runoff, which leads to public health crises. This issue should not be taking a backseat.

Virginia’s plan includes some great proposals but lacks details on potential livestock exclusion mandates, tree canopy proposals, agency funding levels, and specific milestones. Virginia also needs to be more specific about funding for its proposals, including a definitive increase for land conservation.

The comment period for the Phase III WIPs closes on June 7, 2019. After that, each state will review and create a final WIP, for release in August 2019. Potomac Conservancy is working with coalition partners to submit our technical and substantive comments to the relevant state agencies.

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Too Soon To Tell: Federal Funding For Chesapeake Bay Program

At the risk of sounding like a broken record: here we go again. The Trump Administration once again threatened to cut the $73 million Bay Program funding by 90%, despite bipartisan Congressional support for this successful clean water program. Many of the water quality improvements we’re seeing in the Potomac River region are tied to the success of the Bay Program.

Luckily, our legislators agree with the public that this clean water funding is critical! In May, the House Committee on Appropriations approved a spending bill which includes $85 million for the Bay Program.

We still have a long journey ahead before the FY20 funding bill is finished. We’re hopeful that the Senate will include the same $85 million that the House did. We’re ready to defend this program as long as necessary- stay tuned…


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