The Chesapeake Bay is an iconic marine ecosystem that inspires stories, songs, and lifelong memories. I’ve fished, hunted, and raced sailboats in and around the bay. And while now I live in the headwaters of the bay watershed, I continue to be closely connected to it.
This summer, members of Congress in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have introduced three bills focused on Chesapeake Bay. Those of us who live and work in and around the bay feel a special affinity and have a protective outlook toward it, so it’s good to see our federal lawmakers working together to support this incredible resource.
The Chesapeake Bay Science, Education and Ecosystem Enhancement (SEEE) Act was reintroduced by the bipartisan co-chairs of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force, John Sarbanes (MD-03), Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03), and Robert Wittman (VA-01). The other original co-sponsor was Jen Kiggans (VA-02). The legislation was also reintroduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Bob Casey (D-PA), John Fetterman (D-PA), and Joe Manchin (D-WV).
According to Senator Warner’s press release, the legislation would:
- Reauthorize the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office (CBO), a key partner of the Bay Program and leader of the program’s fisheries, environmental literacy, climate resiliency, and habitat work. The bill would allow NOAA CBO to collaborate with universities, nonprofits, and other bay stakeholders to promote integrated coastal observations – such as monitoring and observing restoration activities, collecting and analyzing marine resources data – and information sharing to assist policymakers, resource managers, and the public.
- Direct NOAA to support coordinated management, protection, characterization, and restoration of bay habitats and living resources, as well as the Interpretive Buoy System, a system of data buoys that tracks meteorological, oceanographic, and water-quality data, along the Capital John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
- Authorize the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program, which awards educational grants related to bay restoration.
A copy of the bill text can be found here.
The Chesapeake National Recreation Area was introduced in the Senate by Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. They were joined by U.S. Representatives Don Beyer (VA-08), Gerry Connolly (VA-11), Steny Hoyer (MD-05), Glenn Ivey (MD-04), Jennifer McClellan (VA-04), Kweisi Mfume (MD-07), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Jamie Raskin (MD-08), Dutch Ruppersberger (MD-02), Bobby Scott, David Trone (MD-06), and Rob Wittman, who introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House.
The legislation creates a unified Chesapeake National Recreation Area (CNRA) and would unite a series of voluntarily contributed park areas and bay properties under the operation of the National Park Service (NPS).
Bay watershed residents and stakeholders were invited to share their feedback on the plan during an extensive comment period on the draft legislation unveiled last fall.
Establishing a Chesapeake National Recreation Area is supported by more than 100 stakeholders, including local elected officials, environmental and historical preservation groups, economic development organizations, racial justice advocates, seafood and outdoor recreation businesses, and many more. State and local elected officials voiced their support for this effort, including Maryland Governor Wes Moore and former Governor Larry Hogan.
According to Senator Van Hollen’s office, the legislation would include the following measures:
- The National Park Service (NPS) will be permitted to acquire or partner with Burtis House, Whitehall, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, and the North Beach of Fort Monroe by voluntary sale or donation to serve as the first sites within the CNRA;
- A CNRA Advisory Commission of local stakeholders will be tasked with advising the NPS on the design and implementation of the CNRA management plan and make recommendations for additional partner sites and property to be added to the CNRA;
- NPS may only acquire additional lands or property through voluntary donation, purchase from a willing seller, exchange, or transfer from another agency in consultation with the CNRA Advisory Commission;
- NPS can enter into voluntary “opt-in” partner site and cooperative management agreements with and provide federal funding to state and local governments, tribal governments, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, and private landowners that wish to be included in the CNRA, in consultation with the CNRA Advisory Commission;
- NPS is directed to collect community feedback and conduct transportation planning on the initial CNRA sites, in accordance with the NPS planning process, prioritizing water and trail access;
- The Superintendent of the NPS Chesapeake Bay Office will administer the existing Chesapeake Gateways Program in coordination with the CNRA; and
- The Chesapeake Gateways Program is permanently reauthorized at $6 million annually.
This draft legislation explicitly would not:
- Authorize NPS to impose any additional regulations on recreational or commercial business activities in the Chesapeake Bay waters, including existing water navigation and fishing activities;
- Authorize NPS to supersede state authority in fish and wildlife management efforts;
- Authorize NPS to acquire property from unwilling landowners; nor
- Authorize NPS to impose any additional regulations governing non-participating private or public landowners.
The Chesapeake Bay Conservation Acceleration Act was introduced by U.S. Senators Tim Kaine, Ben Cardin, Chris Van Hollen, Mark Warner and Bob Casey (D-PA). Companion legislation was introduced by U.S. Representatives Rob Wittman, John Sarbanes, Bobby Scott and Abigail Spanberger (VA-07). The legislation helps Chesapeake Bay’s farmers deal with the impacts of climate change by increasing the use of agricultural conservation practices. Smart conservation can help producers cut costs, making their farms more resilient to economic shocks by increasing yields.
Below is a summary from Senator Kaine’s office:
Chesapeake Bay States’ Partnerships Initiative.
This section authorizes the Chesapeake Bay States’ Partnership Initiative (CPSI) for five fiscal years. In May 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced an additional $22.5 million in conservation assistance in fiscal year 2022 to help farmers boost water quality improvements and conservation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This administrative action was a significant step toward closing the estimated $737 million investment gap needed to meet agriculture sector nutrient reduction goals. USDA also announced a new task force—jointly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — to better quantify the voluntary conservation efforts of farmers in the bay watershed. The section authorizes appropriations of $75 million for fiscal years 2024 through 2027.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program Participation
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) was once the dominant source of financial and technical assistance for riparian forest buffers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. However, enrollment has slowed in recent years, despite the cost effectiveness of buffers to address water quality concerns. This section removes administrative barriers to implementation and allows states to more easily take advantage of legislative improvements to the program.
Chesapeake Bay Watershed Turnkey Pilot Program
This section establishes a pilot program in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that would create a “turnkey” program for the installation, management, and maintenance of riparian forest buffers (RFB) to be implemented by a third party—where the landowner assigns the cost share and practice incentive payments to the third party but continues to receive the annual rental payment. A pilot program would offer a simple process for landowners who wish to install RFB buffers to apply.
Chesapeake Bay Watershed Workforce Development
This section expands the Higher Education Challenge Grant Program to include two-year programs and paid internships. Additional capacity is needed for conservation technical assistance—the trained professionals that work with producers to inform, design, engineer and install agricultural best management practices in a way that maximizes the benefits for both the producer and the environment. Promoting agricultural conservation courses at two-year institutions will help bring students to the workforce more quickly and with a lower student loan debt burden, making these jobs more attractive.
Invasive Blue Catfish Inspection Relief
This section transfers primary regulatory oversight of domestic wild-caught catfish invasive to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem from the Department of Agriculture to the Food and Drug Administration. In 2017, all catfish were placed under the regulatory jurisdiction of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, including wild-caught, domestic blue catfish. The establishment of this inspection program has placed constraints on catfish processing in the Bay region.
This is the type of comprehensive, regional approach is both welcome and appropriate for the Chesapeake Bay. Congress should take action to move these important legislative initiatives forward.