The Maryland General Assembly's 441st session came to an early end on March 18, 2020, in response to the coronavirus emergency. Our members’ voices were as important as ever as CBF advocated for clean water issues in this abbreviated session.
This year, CBF focused on legislation to promote investments in natural filters like trees and oysters. On land, we advocated for incentives to farmers to add streamside forest buffers, restore wetlands, and convert row crop fields to permanent pasture. And in the water, we pressed for science-based planning and management of the oyster fishery.
We are happy to report that both of these efforts were successful! And none too soon: about half of Maryland’s remaining work to clean up the Bay will happen on farms, and farmers need access to resources to help them implement changes. Oysters have been struggling in Maryland, as overfishing, pollution, and disease have led to Maryland's oyster population declining from about 600 million oysters in 1999 to about 300 million in 2018, according to Maryland's oyster stock assessment.
Read on to learn more about the important steps taken by the General Assembly this session, and for the fate of other bills important to water quality and climate in Maryland.
Promoting Natural Filters on Maryland Farms
Two important bills that passed are Senate Bill 597 and House Bill 687, legislation that enhances the Maryland Agricultural Water-Quality Cost Share (MACS) program that funds conservation practices on Maryland farms. Senator Ron Young and Delegate Dana Stein were the lead sponsors of this legislation and the bills could not have passed without their leadership.
The final legislation appropriately supports farmers interested in establishing more permanent conservation practices such as:
- streamside grass and tree buffers,
- upland tree plantings,
- wetland restoration,
- mixed-seed cover crops, and
- rotational grazing systems, including perimeter fencing and water systems.
Research by the Chesapeake Bay Program has found that these permanent practices are among the most effective methods of reductions in the three keystone pollutants to the Bay: nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Increased adoption of these fixed natural filter practices by farmers will be critical to Maryland's ability to achieve its required pollution reductions in line with the state’s Chesapeake Bay Blueprint.
The MACS program has included these practices as eligible for funding for years. But the practices were not prioritized for funding, and, in several cases, the lower funding amount may have discouraged their use. Senate Bill 597 / House Bill 687 now puts these highly effective conservation practices on equal footing with other positive practices by balancing the formulas used to determine funding across all practices.
Restoring and Protecting Maryland's Oysters
Last year, the legislature passed two important oyster bills—one to permanently protect the state's five oyster restoration sanctuaries and another that would have created a consensus-based process to recommend a new oyster fishery management plan. Both were vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. Legislators overrode the governor's veto of the sanctuary bill but were not able to override the veto of the fishery management plan bill before the session concluded.
This year, we urged legislators to override the fishery management plan veto—and they did. This law creates a process led by professional facilitators that will bring together watermen, seafood sellers, scientists, and environmental advocates to recommend changes to oyster management to ensure the oyster population is sustainable. Historically we've seen that minor changes to the oyster fishery regulations made by the state's Department of Natural Resources have failed to stop the systemic decline of the population. This consensus-based approach will ideally create buy-in from the diverse groups in the debate as well as ensure oysters are protected for their ecological value to the Chesapeake Bay.
Following the General Assembly’s veto override, CBF successfully advocated for emergency legislation to correct the delay caused by the Governor’s veto and to make sure that the work of the stakeholder group, the Oyster Advisory Commission continues on track and in an open and transparent fashion. This legislation, which required a supermajority vote by both Chambers was passed and will be in effect immediately upon enactment. Senator Sarah Elfreth and Delegate Jim Gilchrist were the lead sponsors of this legislation and their ability to distinguish this legislation from other oyster advocacy contributed to its success in both chambers.
Throughout the legislative Session, CBF opposed bad bills that would place oyster populations at risk, including legislation to loosen oyster poaching penalties and open oyster sanctuaries to harvest. Fortunately, both of these bills received unfavorable reports by their Committees and were withdrawn.
Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming number of CBF members and supporters who stood up and raised their voices, the legislature was not able to address the elimination of CBF’s education funding contract. Gov. Larry Hogan eliminated the $440,000 contract in his budget, which had been used by CBF to take over 10,000 Maryland students and teachers to several sites throughout the Bay watershed for outdoor learning experiences each year. The funds helped lower costs and enable more students and teachers to participate in the outdoor education program. CBF has received state funding to educate Maryland students about the Bay ecosystem since 1979.
CBF also supported a number of environmental community priorities to ban the harmful pesticide chlorpyrifos, limit the distribution of single-use plastic bags, and remove trash incineration from the state's renewable portfolio standard. We are pleased that a four-year ban on chlorpyrifos was passed by both chambers in the waning hours of the session.
Other efforts largely remain unfinished as the General Assembly prematurely ended its regular session, an historic moment in reaction to global health concerns. CBF joins advocates in pushing for complete legislative solutions on each of these topics at the next opportunity for the legislature to convene.