Maryland Farmer Fights To Keep Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Alive

Jun 29, 2017
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More than 18 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The federal government has put a lot of money and effort into cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and the plan is working. But now that the Trump administration is in charge, the bay cleanup may be in jeopardy.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I recently went out to meet one man whose farming practices have changed as policies to clean up the bay have also changed.

We're about an hour and a half drive from Washington, D.C., in the part of Maryland where suburban sprawl has faded into farmers' fields, passing little creeks that drain into the Chesapeake Bay. And we're going to visit the farm of a man named Chip Bowling. He grows corn out here. And in fact, he's the chairman of the National Corn Growers Association.

CHIP BOWLING: Good morning. Hey, there.

SHAPIRO: Hey, I'm Ari.

BOWLING: Hi, good morning. Chip Bowling. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good morning. Good to meet you.

BOWLING: So we can get out of the sun or stay in the sun, whatever you guys...

SHAPIRO: I think this is an amazing place to start just because we can see the corn, and we can see the Chesapeake Bay. And it's like everything is happening right here where we're standing.

BOWLING: It is. That is actually the Wicomico River...

SHAPIRO: OK.

BOWLING: ...Which filters into the Potomac River, which goes into the Chesapeake Bay.

SHAPIRO: Has your family lived here a long time?

BOWLING: Yes. My family's been here for seven generations.

SHAPIRO: In fact, they started farming this area in the 1700s, before the United States of America was a country, before the federal government even existed. So he has complicated feelings about being regulated by the federal government. We'll get to that in a minute.

BOWLING: So why don't you guys follow me? We're going to go back out where you came in, and we're going to end up right over there.

SHAPIRO: Perfect.

Bowling farms 1,600 acres here. Not just corn - also soybeans and wheat. And on the weekends, he goes out on the water, catching fish and crabs. We walk out over the marsh onto a pier that he built. Purple flowers pop out of the water. Dragonflies buzz around our heads.

BOWLING: Yeah, there's all kinds of life out here. You've got birds. We've got crabs. We've got oysters. You'll probably see a bald eagle before we walk off the pier.

SHAPIRO: He used to play here as a kid back when his father grew tobacco on this farm.

BOWLING: When we got our work done we literally would jump out of our work clothes and put a pair of shorts on and a T-shirt and run down here and either swim, fish, get on the boat.

SHAPIRO: He's been doing that more than 50 years.

BOWLING: If you walked at the end of this pier when I was a kid you'd see aquatic grass growing. You actually had a hard time walking through it because the grass was so lush underwater.

SHAPIRO: That lush grass provided a habitat for crabs and fish. Pollution made it disappear, and now it's beginning to return.

Beautiful.

BOWLING: Yep. Yep.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's head back down.

BOWLING: OK, good deal.

SHAPIRO: This question of why the grass has started to come back is complicated. The Environmental Protection Agency has been working with states, farmers and developers to clean up the Chesapeake Bay going as far back as the 1980s. The Obama administration took an especially aggressive approach to cleaning up the bay. Voluntary measures became rules with consequences.

Chip Bowling was already taking steps to protect the environment on his farm. And he thought the Obama administration was overreaching, so he joined a lawsuit against the EPA. Also supporting that suit - Scott Pruitt, who now runs the EPA. We requested an interview with Pruitt or a comment from the EPA and received no reply.

BOWLING: Nobody likes rules. Nobody really likes regulations. But you also know that you have to have both.

SHAPIRO: So the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan was a novel effort to use existing federal law to regulate this particular body of water.

BOWLING: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that it worked?

BOWLING: I know it worked and is still working. And we're getting better at it.

SHAPIRO: So Chip Bowling, the man who was once fighting this plan in court, has now become a fan.

BOWLING: It was a struggle to get there. I was critical in the beginning. What we do know now is that working together, we have figured out a way with funding to get those programs in place and to get the bay on a track that's getting it environmentally better.

SHAPIRO: The key phrase there - with funding. Every year, this program costs tens of millions of federal dollars. Now the Trump administration wants to cut the EPA's budget by a third.

BOWLING: We think that when the new administration figures out what they're going to cut and how they're going to cut it that there's still going to be funding left for programs like environmental cleanup.

SHAPIRO: Really?

BOWLING: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Come on.

BOWLING: I can guarantee you we're doing something in D.C. today to make sure that we pass on to the administration and administrator Pruitt what we're doing works and we need funding to get there.

SHAPIRO: Chip Bowling has gone from fighting against this cleanup plan to fighting for its survival. And while nobody knows whether it'll make it through this battle, the national outlook is very clear. Anybody who is hoping to bring a Chesapeake Bay-style cleanup plan to the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico is going to have to keep waiting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.