San Francisco Chronicle: Will SF Bay wetlands restoration be a casualty of EPA cuts?

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Will SF Bay wetlands restoration be a casualty of EPA cuts?    Inline image 2

By Carolyn Lochhead,  Friday, March 3, 2017

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration could eliminate all federal funding for wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, according to a budget plan that has shocked local and state officials, but is just one piece of broad changes to federal environmental programs.

The directive from the Office of Management and Budget, leaked late Thursday evening, proposes slashing the Environmental Protection Agency budget by nearly a quarter, eliminating 20 percent of its staff to a personnel level last seen four decades ago and eliminating 38 programs entirely.

Air pollution grants to big cities, programs to clean trash and pollutants from waters at the Mexican border and efforts to cut diesel emissions would all be discontinued. In addition, climate protection programs would be cut by 70 percent, and dozens of programs to reduce lead in drinking water, clean up marine pollution and fix leaking underground storage tanks, would be slashed.

The 23-page directive to the EPA is part of President Trump’s formulation of his first budget, expected the week of March 13. Other domestic agencies are bracing for deep cuts as well.

“The administration’s 2018 budget blueprint will prioritize rebuilding the military and making critical investments in the nation’s security,” the budget agency document says. “It will also identify the savings and efficiencies needed to keep the nation on a responsible fiscal path.”

The document said the cuts would help pay for Trump’s proposed $54 billion increase in military and homeland security spending. Defense spending is currently $598.5 billion, and the EPA’s budget is $8.2 billion, with the proposed cuts totaling roughly $2 billion.

During the campaign, Trump had promised cuts that would leave only “little tidbits” of the EPA. Congress has final authority over the budget, however, and the administration’s plans are likely to meet bipartisan resistance.

Neither the White House nor the EPA responded to a request for comment. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who has questioned climate science and sued the agency he now manages, told the nation’s mayors Thursday that the budget process “is just starting” and that he wanted to defend several agency programs, including water infrastructure and local grant programs.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” responded Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, a science think tank. “To suggest that Pruitt is going to be an advocate for local government and environmental protection is beyond belief.”

In addition to San Francisco Bay, the budget all but eliminates big watershed restoration programs for the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and South Florida. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was instrumental in creating the $4.8 million program for San Francisco, by far the smallest of these  the Great Lakes program gets $300 million a year. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the Great Lakes cuts “outrageous.”

The San Francisco program, called the S.F. Bay Water Quality Improvement Fund, helped restore the old Cargill salt ponds in the South Bay, creating tidal marshes and new wetlands. The total cost of the 50-year project is expected to be $1 billion, paid with local and state funds that rely on a federal match. Bay Area voters last year easily approved Measure AA, a $12-a-year parcel tax covering all nine counties to raise $500 million in restoration funds.

Officials said restoring bay wetlands is vital to protecting South Bay cities such as San Jose, part of which was inundated two weeks ago, from future flooding. As much as 90 percent of the bay’s wetlands have been lost to development, exposing the shoreline to storm surges, destroying wildlife habitat and degrading water quality.

The salt ponds restoration is “an essential part of our adaptation to climate change” and rising sea levels, said Brenda Buxton, deputy regional manager for the California Coastal Conservancy, a sister state agency to the Coastal Commission that oversees projects to protect the coast and its watersheds.

“We need to restore the wetlands and restore them as fast as we possibly can, so they are there for us when we need them,” Buxton said. “As the weather gets weirder and we get bigger storms, we need to have time for the sediment to come in and the plants to grow to have them function. We feel a real sense of urgency.”

The San Francisco clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse, both of which live only on the bay, will probably become extinct without further restoration, she said.

Feinstein has taken a keen personal interest in the salt ponds, leveraging her senior position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to establish and fund the restoration program.

“What’s frustrating is the restoration dollars go further in the Bay Area than anywhere else in the nation,” because of strong local funding, said Adrian Covert, a vice president at the Bay Area Council business group. A 2015 council study showed that the bay, especially Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, is vulnerable to as much as $10 billion damage from a big storm.

“That’s about the same as the Loma Prieta earthquake,” Covert said. Federal taxpayers pick up much of the cost of such disasters.

While cuts to the wetlands programs could harm waterways, there are fears that reductions in pollution programs will harm public health.

“I can guarantee with certainty that at least in the air pollution area, there will be many more people who will die prematurely and tens of thousands, perhaps millions more, who will get sick unnecessarily,” if the cuts prevail, said W. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a nonpartisan association of local air pollution agencies. Becker said the cuts will have “a direct and serious adverse health impact on almost every major metropolitan area in the country.”

Neither Feinstein’s office, which is waiting for the formal budget proposal, nor the governor’s office offered comment.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, had something to say on Twitter:

“Cutting @EPA protections & budget will result in more dirty water, more polluted air, more asthmatic kids & more water crises like #Flint”