Earlier this month, Congress overwhelmingly passed America's Conservation Enhancement Act (ACE). The legislation's dozen-plus conservation initiatives include reauthorizations for important programs that help protect the Chesapeake Bay and wetlands across the country.
Among other provisions, the legislative package authorizes $92 million in annual funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chesapeake Bay Program through 2025, a $7 million annual increase. The program provides funding for states, local governments, and other partners to take measures that improve Bay water quality, and it also helps coordinate restoration efforts in the watershed. While Congress has appropriated funds to the program every year since it was created in 1987, its authorization expired in 2005. This reauthorization and increase in funding are a good sign for the future of Bay cleanup efforts, provided, of course, that Congress follows through with appropriations at the authorized level.
ACE also established a new program, Chesapeake Watershed Investments for Landscape Defense, with $15 million annually for coordinated restoration and protection activities throughout the Bay watershed. This program has a heavy focus on improving water quality and habitat to support fish and wildlife, but it also addresses the need to protect waterways that are used as drinking water sources. The program will also increase scientific capacity to support related planning, monitoring, and research activities.
The legislation also reauthorizes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, with $25 million annually for various federal agencies to implement the program. This program has provided funding to thousands of coordinated efforts to restore wetland habitat for wildlife, especially birds, across the country. Improving wetlands for wildlife is a good deal for humans, too, because it will improve water quality and flood control and reduce coastal erosion. Similarly, ACE authorized $5 million a year to combat invasive species, which can wreak havoc on wildlife and ecosystems.
ACE does have some drawbacks, however. It prohibits EPA from regulating lead content in hunting and fishing gear any time before 2026, even though the harmful effects of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on wildlife, water quality, and human health are well documented. The prohibition language demonstrates a compromise between the House and Senate, which preferred a permanent ban on any lead regulations from EPA related to hunting and fishing.
President Trump is expected to sign the measure, which came as a surprise to some since he has repeatedly attempted to cut the Chesapeake Bay Program’s budget, along with EPA’s overall budget. Earlier this year, for example, Trump sought to cut the program’s budget by 16 percent. Likewise, the president's proposed 2021 budget called for more than a 26 percent decrease in funding for the EPA and would have imposed a draconian workforce cap on the agency, crippling its ability to carry out its important mission of protecting all of us from environmental and public health hazards.
The important caveat here is that authorizations are not appropriations. By authorizing these various environmental initiatives, Congress has laid important groundwork for the future and established important policy priorities. In the end, though, the money is what will matter, and Congress will need to follow through with appropriations to match.