WASHINGTON – The Bush administration this week unveiled a fiscal 2004 budget that cuts funding for wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland to $20 million, down from about $32 million in fiscal 2002.
Administration officials defended the budget, saying that while the president has proposed less money for treatment plants next year, he also wants to extend the annual funding through 2011, increasing the overall contribution to upgrades in the process.
Environmentalists, watermen and some lawmakers still criticized the short- term cuts, however, saying help is needed now.
“We’re going to be witnessing some serious setbacks in our ongoing efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed if these funding cuts are implemented,” said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich noted that, while the governor had hoped for more money from the federal government, the budget fight is far from over.
“The governor is making it a personal priority to work with the administration and congressional leadership to increase those investments,” said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman.
In his State of the State Address, Ehrlich pledged $95 million to help the state’s wastewater treatment plants reduce the amounts of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that they release. Excessive amounts of those nutrients can accelerate growth of algae and other organisms that can, in turn, choke bay grasses, fish, oysters and crabs.
There are more than 300 sewage plants in the multistate bay watershed, said Peter Marx, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency and the states in the watershed. Those plants discharge more than 500,000 gallons of treated water a day, he said.
Maryland has 66 such plants, 35 of which have some nutrient-removing technology.
Half of the plants in the watershed are expected to have some degree of nutrient-reduction technology by 2010, said Marx. Maryland is moving aggressively to upgrade its facilities, and is expected to have all its plants upgraded by 2010, he said.
Marx said the ultimate cost of upgrading plants throughout the watershed will be in the billions, and Ehrlich said the state money is little more than a down payment. He called on the federal government to do its part.
Bush’s proposed fiscal 2004 budget led some to question the federal government’s commitment. It suggests the administration is “not being serious about cutting pollution in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
The fiscal 2004 cut “comes at a time when bay scientists say we need to sizably increase wastewater treatment plants,” said J. Charles Fox, senior policy adviser for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Fox, the former Maryland Natural Resources secretary, said the foundation will lobby Congress to restore funding to upgrade treatment plants.
Marx suggested that Congress — which is still putting the finishing touches on the budget for fiscal 2003, which began on Oct. 1, 2002 — will likely be receptive to such lobbying.
“Traditionally, Congress has raised the amount in the president’s budget,” he said.