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Budget gaps strain Delaware's progress toward federal Chesapeake Bay restoration goals

By 2025, Chesapeake Bay watershed states aim to drastically reduce the amount of pollutants and sediment they put into bay waterways. Using everything from new stormwater equipment to tree plantings, they're working toward ambitious goals set by the Environmental Protection Agency six years ago.

But states like Delaware aren't on track to meet 2017 halfway point milestones. As Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik reports, a lack of state funding is limiting options -- and failing to meet EPA goals could only make it worse.

 

Tucked away in southwestern Delaware is an farmland oasis. It's October, and Bill Jester's cornfields are barren. But between them, things are growing.

JESTER: This is like a kidney-shaped wetlands. ROPEIK: And so what did this look like before? JESTER: It was farmland. It was actually tilled.

He's created this three-acre inland marsh with the help of Delaware's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP. It pays farmers to make eco-friendly upgrades that prevent runoff where they can't or don't want to grow crops.

JESTER: They picked out the plants and the bushes. There was different kinds of flowering bushes and all for the different kind of animals and all involved. As you can see from here on up, this was actually a completely different project…

The annual pay-outs themselves aren't much -- $104 for an acre of grass, $135 for an acre of wetland. That came out of a much larger state fund set up in 1990, but this year, it's run out.

"Knowing this was coming, we as department have recommended a CREP line item, a budget item, for the last five years, and it just hasn't gained any traction," says Bob Palmer, the head of conservation programs in Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, or DNREC.

Delaware is facing a $130 million budget deficit, and little programs like the CREP are being shelved -- meaning the state won't get the matching federal funds that go with them. That won't impact Bill Jester this year -- he's not up for re-enrollment, and the USDA will still cover its 20 percent of the CREP's cost until he is.

"We have to be extremely innovative in the upcoming years as we approach our 2017 midpoint."

 But losing the CREP poses a much larger problem, says DNREC's Marcia Fox. She's the lead on the state's Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan, Delaware's piece of EPA goals for cleaning up Bay-region waterways.

"We decided by 2025 that we would have 7,020 acres of riparian forest buffer on the ground. And in Delaware, most of those acres are implemented through the CREP program," Fox says. "In the past few years, we haven't been too successful with implementation, just because of the funding being cut and the willingness of some of the farmers."

By last year, they'd only planted about 2,500 acres of trees on watershed soil -- and that was with the CREP up and running. Now that it's suspended, Fox says they'll have to rely on less effective EPA-approved best management practices.

"So we have to be extremely innovative in the upcoming years as we approach our 2017 midpoint," she says.

Delaware is far behind states like Maryland and Virginia in the race to meet the EPA's ambitious goals for reducing runoff. They've tried to innovate on a big scale. Just last month, Maryland introduced a nutrient credit trading program, inspired by Virginia's. It lets private and public entities team up to contribute different load reductions to the total.

"It's a very important way to do more than just the status quo of the last 20 years."

"It's a very important way to do more than just the status quo or the command-and-control tools of the last 20 years," says Ben Grumbles, Maryland's Secretary of the Environment. "And that is what the writers of the Chesapeake Bay pollution budget were envisioning, was that there'd be innovation to bring more parties into the mix."

He says it would be convenient to team up with Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula -- but DNREC officials say Delaware is too small to make large-scale credit trading practical, and the agricultural sector doesn't seem interested.

So how will the First State meet its 2017 goals? Fox says they'll reevaluate that in the coming months, to see "who do we need to work with, how do we need to become more innovative with the best management practices and the funding?"

If the state can't pay for its own incentives, it'll be hard to convince land users to stay involved in restoration work.

That could mean getting the EPA to add new things Delaware's already doing to its list of what counts toward runoff goals. Or it could mean working with nonprofits and other federal agencies on their old favorite: tree planting.

Still, Delaware and other lagging states will likely face EPA penalties in 2017 for not meeting midway goals. Fox wouldn't speculate how much federal funding Delaware stands to lose, or earn back if new practices get approved down the line.

But if the state can't pay for its own incentives, she says, it'll be hard to convince land users -- people like Bill Jester -- to stay involved in restoration work.

Jester, though, says it's not just about money. He says he could make three times as much farming on his CREP land as he does from incentives -- but he and farmers like him don't mind doing their share. Plus, he says --

JESTER: How do you measure the return on something you like to do?

We're riding on a little tractor to see another part of Jester's farm -- one that was improving the watershed long before Jester was getting public money in return.

JESTER: Now this begins the 45 acres of pine trees. These are specifically planted for piling use...

We've crossed one of his cornfields into a huge pine forest -- planted as rows of saplings in 1986. It's a crop, like anything else -- but this is a long-term project.

JESTER: We [logged] it once in 25 years, and then we'll probably wait 'til 35, another 10 -- everything you see from here on out will be cut.

Across the Jester property, there's a pond Bill's father dug, stocked with fish and lined by trees in brilliant fall color. Again -- not state-funded, he says, but just something nice for the land. Still, he thinks the state could get more farmers involved in its programs:

JESTER: You gotta take the initiative to go there. I don't know if it would be better to go around and try to sell it more … but listen. (silence, birds, rustling) You can hear an airplane, but...

Even without incentives, he says, all these ponds, wetlands and forests help his land stay healthy -- and he'll aim to keep it that way well into the future.

 

This piece was produced as part of a collaboration to examine issues affecting the Delmarva Peninsula and Chesapeake watershed, in partnership with WYPR in Baltimore and Virginia Public Radio and with help from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. Previously: Maryland's moves to preserve wildlife refuges mirror work in Delaware.

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