Two days after the Maryland General Assembly wraps its 2022 session in Annapolis, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth will drive to Harrisburg.
April in Pennsylvania might be beautiful, but she isn’t going for the scenery or a perfect scrapple breakfast. She’s on a diplomatic mission.
As this year’s chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Annapolis Democrat believes that with the 2025 cleanup deadline looming for Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the path forward isn’t in lawsuits or fingerpointing. Elfreth sees diplomacy as the tool needed to reach the federal goals now just three years away.
And she sees this moment in time, when Virginia has elected a new governor and Maryland and Pennsylvania are about to do the same, as a unique opportunity to stop treading water on bay cleanup. The difference might be a bit of empathy and a willingness to focus on what the sometimes warring states have in common rather than what divides them.
As an example, Elfreth points to the decision by Pennsylvania to open the Conowingo Dam floodgates in 2018 and 2021 on the Susquehanna River. That sent millions of tons of debris and stormwater pollution rolling down the Chesapeake. It clogged harbors, inundated roads and fouled bay beaches with trash.
“It was a completely serious issue for us,” Elfreth said. “When I spoke to my colleagues in Pennsylvania, they said we'd had people die in the flood. That's what we care about.
“So I think we have to take our bay privilege hats off and appreciate how do we make the challenges that are starting upstream relevant to the policymakers there? And that's making it relevant to their districts.”
It’s forgivable if you lack a sharp focus on the Chesapeake Bay Commission. It’s one of a gaggle of environmental groups headquartered in Annapolis, all of them focused on the long-running effort to clean up the bay.
After decades of programs and initiatives, it sometimes seems like we’re no closer to a clean Chesapeake.
You can’t swim in the Chesapeake or its tributaries after heavy rain as bacteria and other pollution flushes into it. Report cards from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program on its health never come up with anything better than a low C.
Maryland, the CBF and others are suing the EPA for failing to enforce cleanup goals in Pennsylvania and New York under the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Agreement – even as Maryland is almost certainly going to fall short, too.
The 2021 crab population estimate was horrible, either a fluke or a sign of bad news coming. Rockfish catches are down again, and even some fishermen grumble that it might be time for another moratorium.
Restoration efforts focused on the oyster, the species that could radically improve bay water quality if only there were enough of them, continue to fall short despite tens of millions of dollars invested in new or restored reefs.
For those who care, it’s easy to get discouraged. Elfreth, whose district stretches from Annapolis to Deale, acknowledges that. She just argues that it would be worse if the environmental movement hadn’t blossomed in Maryland 50 years ago.
“We're treading water,” she said, “on the report cards, on many of our goals. We haven't gone backward. Have we made as much progress as I would like? Absolutely not,” she said.
As she finishes this legislative session in Annapolis and prepares to focus on her year at the head of the commission, Elfreth is upbeat about the opportunity to foster change through the new administrations in Annapolis, Richmond and Harrisburg.
“We've got a lot of talented people running for governor,” she said. “I think they would benefit from the commission’s expertise on water quality issues. So how do we prepare a briefing packet and a strategy for the next (Maryland) governor to be able to walk in … on Day One and call the new governor of Pennsylvania and have an honest conversation about the challenges we share?”
Ann Swanson, executive director at the Annapolis-based commission for three decades, said consensus is how the commission has achieved its successes.
“It’s completely workable…” she said. “The thing that is so important is to understand is the other states, the other governmental frameworks, each other’s strengths, each other’s and cultures and work within those. Don’t accept sameness because the states aren’t the same.
“Work commonly and collectively for the common good.”
Elfreth’s search for the common good hasn’t always worked, or at least so far. Two years ago, she was the architect of legislation to find consensus on Maryland’s contentious oyster policy.
Her bill, enacted over Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, required the Department of Natural Resources to bring all parties together for agreement on rebuilding the state’s oyster population and making it possible for watermen to continue making a living from the shellfish.
The project has fallen short, with no substantive changes other than investing $2 million more a year over the next 25 years to restore oysters. Elfreth acknowledges it didn’t bridge the divide between watermen, environmentalists and state regulators.
She blames the shortcoming on COVID. The pandemic eliminated in-person conversations central to her strategy and how national political fires stoked watermen’s long-term distrust of government.
Still, the senator doesn’t think hope for an accord is exhausted. The advisory panel at the center of her effort met in mid-January and she’s trying to move forward on supply of oyster seed and spat, more shell for planting and a better consensus on the substrate for building oyster reefs.
“We need a new bay bottom survey because we are using a survey that was done in the ’70s and, in some cases, we were using maps … that were done in the ’20s," Elfreth said.
“So I picked five pieces that ... most people can get behind that are going to increase production, increase shell retention and fund a new bay bottom survey.”
She plans to bring the same approach to her year as chair, finding common ground for legislation commission members to take to their individual states. Members, made up of state legislators, cabinet secretaries and citizen representatives, can’t adopt legislation. But they usually are the drivers of major environmental bills in their respective state legislatures.
Elfreth already has taken simple internal steps, such as having the staff distribute a directory of personal contact information for members. She's taken advantage of it to speak with commission members in other state legislatures months before the next meeting.
Right now, members from Pennsylvania are trying to pass a $250 million clean streams funds. In Virginia, members are working on climate change resilience bills.
Elfreth herself is nothing if not a prolific legislator.
"She is moving to the edge of where she thinks the environmental movement and the legislature can go," Swanson said.
"That’s where you can still push a piece of legislation through and remain in office and remain a representative of her constituents."
In this General Assembly session, she is the primary sponsor of 23 bills. Nine are focused on issues that would impact the Chesapeake Bay or the environment of Maryland. She’s a co-sponsor on others, including one that would add an amendment to the state constitution that guarantees Marylanders’ right to a healthy and sustainable environment.
Some of the legislation she is pushing focuses on issues bubbling up in all three states since Elfreth was appointed to the commission in 2019: microplastics, technical assistance to farmers and PFAs, also known as forever chemicals, because they don’t break down.
Perhaps the most far-reaching is the Conservation Finance Act, which would change several state programs to help fund water infrastructure projects by selling carbon credits. It touches three Maryland state agencies and could be a model for other states.
The big challenge for the bay agreement as a whole, however, is the looming failure to meet the watershed implementation plan benchmarks. The agreement commits all six states to have the tools for cutting nitrogen and phosphorus in place by 2025.
Pennsylvania is hundreds of millions behind on spending needed to clean up its contribution to bay pollution, but Maryland is lagging on stormwater and agricultural runoff. Pennsylvania issued a new plan it says will make up the difference, but the EPA has yet to sign off on it.
Swanson said the best chance to meet the goals is at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The commission asked it to dedicate $775 million for a farms initiative to address half of the need for farm pollution controls – 85% percent of the remaining pollution.
Even if that happens, there will be a need to fund the other half, a responsibility likely to fall to commission members. Understanding what’s going on across state lines is how Elfreth thinks it or any other advances will happen.
Not a single acre of Pennsylvania land faces the Chesapeake Bay, and it has three watersheds dividing its states. Its biggest environmental issue is stream degradation and flooding. Pennsylvania has the highest stream in the continental U.S. and 50% of its streams are impaired.
The part of Pennsylvania that drains into the bay is the most politically conservative, electing Republicans who often are the most resistant to spending on bay cleanup issues.
And while Maryland has 157 municipalities making land-use decisions, Pennsylvania has something like 1,500 – an incredibly complex web of control.
“The key to unlocking that challenge is, how do we make the bay’s health relevant? And to me, the answer is we have to focus on stream health because that is in their backyard. It's what they care about.”
Elfreth said it’s part of finding things that benefit all involved.
“I think the harder, certainly more challenging approach is old-fashioned diplomacy,” she said. “It would be leadership in Maryland going to leadership in Harrisburg and having these challenging conversations.”