Administration’s new Bay leadership team making the rounds in the legislature

Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay with the Francis Scott Key Bridge on the horizon. photo by flownaksala.

Tracking the health of the Chesapeake Bay is a massive undertaking. It includes several agencies in federal, state and local governments that monitor the health of air, land and water, trees, vegetation and aquatic life.

Measuring Bay health can also become a mind-boggling mix of statistics and reports, most of which aim to gauge how Maryland and the six other Bay jurisdictions — Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and the District of Columbia – advancing in meeting federal pollution control standards. Still others highlight the economic health of the Bay Area and its key industries. Government officials focused on the bay routinely interact with farmers, watermen, scientists, environmentalists, and the tourism industry.

The dawn of a new administration in Annapolis brings with it a new group of leaders tasked with overseeing Maryland Bay conservation efforts — in many cases working with some veterans. And in a rarity, they were all present Wednesday in the hearing room of the House Environment and Transportation Committee in Annapolis, introducing themselves in some cases to lawmakers and offering their opinions on the health of the bay.

So what was the lineup of officials and other leaders who testified?

There was Serena McIlwain, who was chosen by Gov. Wes Moore to become Secretary of the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection. There was Josh Kurtz, who was nominated by the Moore administration to be secretary in the Department of Natural Resources. And Kevin Atticks, the designated Secretary of Agriculture. All were accompanied by lieutenants who had been with them for a while.

Also testifying: Mark Hoffman, the Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a body of legislative leaders from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and his new boss, Anna Killius, the commission’s executive director. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was also there, with Erik Fisher, its acting director (a position Kurtz held until recently), and Matthew Stegman, the foundation’s Maryland attorney, as witnesses.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently awarded a D-Plus score for bay health. A slightly older study by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences put the grade at C-plus. But several executives said the grades only tell part of the story.

“The water quality in the bay is improving,” Hoffman said. “It’s not as much as we’d like. It’s not as fast as we’d like. But it’s improving with the growing population.”

Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Environment and Transportation Committee, said the testimonials do not reflect all the work that has gone into cleaning up the bay.

“I don’t think that D-Plus touch suits the people in this room very well,” he said.

In recent months, the US Environmental Protection Agency has admitted that some states will not meet their pollution reduction targets, which were set to be in place by 2025. Speaking at an environmental summit in Maryland Tuesday night, Kandis Boyd, director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program, said 2025 still represents “an opportunity” for states to act as quickly as possible to meet their mandated goals — and to think more deeply about the future.

McIlwain said Wednesday Maryland has made “steady progress” in reducing its wastewater load, despite reversing the 2021 trend for wastewater spills at the Back River and Patapsco treatment plants. Baltimore-area officials on Tuesday announced their plans to seek a new governance structure for the area’s water and sanitation utilities.

McIlwain also said she expects a resolution soon to a lawsuit in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. filed against the EPA in 2020 for failing to adequately address pollution in the bay, which originates from upriver states like Pennsylvania and New York monitored.

“They’re in the process of sorting it out,” she said.

McIlwain and her cabinet mates – each of whom has yet to be confirmed by the Senate – laid out some of the efforts their agencies are making to ensure the Bay’s health continues to improve. These efforts range from Department of Agriculture employees who regularly work with farmers to the dozens of water monitors maintained by the Department of Natural Resources statewide. Several lawmakers raised questions about the Conowingo Dam, where sediment from farms in Pennsylvania and New York enters the bay through the Susquehanna River.

“The talent and dedication in this space gives me a lot of hope for the future of the bay,” Del said. Sheila Ruth (D-Baltimore County), a member of the Environment and Transportation Committee.

Many of the same leaders are scheduled to reappear together Thursday afternoon for a briefing at the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and Environment.

Editor’s Note: Josh Kurtz, who has been nominated to be Secretary of Natural Resources, is not related to the Maryland Matters reporter of the same name.

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