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The Chesapeake Bay is America's largest estuary and one of the most productive bodies of water in the world. This watershed spans 64,000 square miles, touching on six states and is central to Maryland's identity and its economy.These reports are produced as part of WYPR's collaboration with Delaware Public Media and Virginia and Delmarva Public Radio stations to examine a broad spectrum of issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Delaware Lags in Chesapeake Clean-up

Annie Ropeik
Bill Jester talks about his CREP program

The states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been working to drastically reduce the amount of pollutants and sediment they put into bay waterways by 2025. But some are moving more quickly than others. According to a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency, Delaware is far off track to meet its halfway milestones in 2017 and at least part of the reason is the lack of money. 

For example Bill Jester has created a farmland oasis in his corner of southwestern Delaware. It’s an inland, three-acre marsh, kind of kidney-shaped, in the middle of his cornfield. He did it with the help of Delaware's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, which pays farmers to make eco-friendly upgrades that slow and filter run-off from crop lands.

Jester says the CREP folks "picked out the plants and the bushes" not only to help filter run-off, but to create habitat for local animals as well.

The annual payments he receives--$104 for an acre of grass, $135 for an acre of wetland-- came from a state fund set up in 1990. But the fund has dried up this year.

Bob Palmer, head of conservation programs for Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, or DNREC, says he and others in the department saw this problem coming and tried to get a CREP line item in the state budget for the last five years. But "it just hasn't gained any traction."

To complicate things, Delaware is facing a $130 million budget deficit and little programs like the CREP are being shelved -- meaning the state won't get the matching federal funds that go with them.

That won't hurt Bill Jester this year -- he's not up for re-enrollment. But losing the CREP money poses a much larger problem for Delaware’s Chesapeake Bay efforts, according to Marcia Fox, who heads DNREC’s bay Watershed Implementation Plan.

"We decided by 2025 that we would have 7,020 acres of riparian forest buffer on the ground. And in Delaware, most of those acres are implemented through the CREP program,” she says. “In the past few years, we haven't been too successful with implementation, just because of the funding being cut and the willingness of some of the farmers.”

By last year, they'd only planted about 2500 acres of trees in the watershed. And that was with the CREP up and running.

“So we have to be extremely innovative in the upcoming years as we approach our 2017 midpoint,” she says.

Delaware is far behind Maryland and Virginia in the race to meet the EPA's ambitious goals for reducing runoff. Just last month, Maryland introduced a nutrient credit trading program, inspired by Virginia's. It lets private and public entities team up to contribute different load reductions to the total.

Ben Grumbles, Maryland's Secretary of the Environment, says the trading program is "a very important way to do more than just the status quo or the command-and-control tools of the last 20 years." It’s what those who drafted the Chesapeake Bay pollution budget had in mind, "that there'd be innovation to bring more parties into the mix."

He says it would be convenient to team up with Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula, but DNREC officials say Delaware is too small to make large-scale credit trading practical, and the agricultural sector doesn't seem interested.

So, now, Delaware will have to reevaluate its plans to meet its goals, says Fox, to figure out "who do we need to work with, how do we need to become more innovative with the best management practices and the funding?"

Still, Delaware and other lagging states could face EPA penalties for not meeting midway benchmarks in 2017. And if the state can't pay for its own incentives, Fox says it'll be hard to farmers like Bill Jester to stay involved in restoration work.

Jester, though, says it’s not just about the money. He says he could make three times more growing crops on that marsh than he earns from the CREP incentives. But he and farmers like him don't mind doing their share. “How do you measure the return of something you like to do?” he asks.