By KATE ELIZABETH QUERAM, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 7, 2008) - Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to allow the BayStat program to allocate the recently created $50 million Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund received generally positive reviews at a Senate hearing Wednesday.
A handful of activists testified before the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, all saying they approved of the bill, but expressing concerns about where the money would go.
As is, S.B. 213 stipulates that the annual $50 million fund - first established during November's special session - must be used to reduce non-point source pollution, or the kind of stuff that cannot be traced to one drainage pipe or power plant.
The specifics of the funding would fall to a BayStat group made up of the secretaries of agriculture, the environment, natural resources and planning, as well as the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The group would be assisted by a scientific advisory board.
BayStat is the latest incarnation of O'Malley's CitiStat program, created during his tenure as mayor of Baltimore. The "Stat" systems promote accountability among state agencies by regularly holding meetings between agency heads and the governor to monitor progress.
Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources John Griffin presented the bill to the Senate committee, noting that bay restoration is an ongoing process that has yet to really be effective.
"We've been at this for 25 years and we?re not getting the results we want," Griffin said. "If we don't focus on non-point source pollution reduction projects, it's not going to change."
Griffin highlighted the bill's key components, including identifying areas where non-point source pollution is most dire - tributaries and smaller waterways, like backyard streams - and then inviting local entities to engage in a competitive grant bidding process.
Griffin also pointed out that the bill gives the BayStat group the flexibility to reallocate funds on a yearly basis if programs aren't performing well.
Mike Phipps, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, worried about the BayStat group's ability to reallocate funding from year to year.
Some pollution reduction projects may take more than a year to produce results, he said, citing the cover crops program, where farmers plant crops in the off-season to soak up nutrients left in the soil from previous harvests.
Will Baker of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had other concerns about the funding flexibility.
"We want to make sure 'flexibility' doesn't mean opening the money to other uses," Baker said. He also recommended amendments that would ensure that state agencies are held accountable for the implemented programs, and that they're cost effective.
Other proposed amendments included nods to forest preservation, oyster restoration and poultry farm pollution reduction projects.
Despite some reservations, those testifying seemed optimistic that the trust fund could provide the solution to the long-debated bay restoration problem.
"History might say, 'This is where we marked the point of starting to do something about the bay,'" Baker said.