What If?

MORRO BAY - What if the government decides to do away with the Environmental Protection Agency? What happens to the Morro Bay National Estuary Program? I spent some time with Executive Director, Lexie Bell recently to find out how things would pan out in this scenario.

“The Morro Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) is a local, non-profit, community based organization and is not part of the EPA,” Bell said. “We’re here to serve Morro Bay and the beautiful estuary, but because we are designated as a National Estuary Program, and that has a significance for the whole nation, we are eligible for a grant from them.”

The MBNEP must apply for the grant every year and they receive it so long as they meet the requirements. “The unique thing about National Estuary Programs is they are all set up to best serve the communities that they are in,” Bell explained, “and I believe that the MBNEP is one of the first to be a non-profit.” There are all different ways for a National Estuary Program to be set up. There are now eight or nine that are non-profit organizations within their communities. Many are part of a university or state agency and some are hybrids, both nonprofit and agency.

The EPA grant that the MBNEP receives is half of their operating costs and they must match it with non-federal funds raised mostly from grant sources and donations. Because they are a nonprofit they can take donations. Operating costs are most of what is covered by the EPA grant and pay for things like rent, lights, administration. Having these funds creates stability for the staff. To accomplish large restoration projects, they must raise much more money.

“If EPA went away it would be very difficult,” Bell said “We would have to make decisions as to what elements of the program could be funded in another way. Some are more fundable than others such as the education outreach component, like the State of the Bay, to show the public how we are doing with the bay, how clean the water is, and to show them ways to make sure it is kept clean.”

The MBNEP Visitor Center has approximately 30,000 people come to see it every year. Staff are collecting data for water quality and testing it to assess the quality of the water all the time. They have real on-the-ground restoration projects, like flood plain restoration going on, and are doing work on creek banks to stabilize them and reduce the erosion. “A huge cut in the funding would make us look at what can we fund and what do we have to cut,” Bell said.

The MBNEP Comprehensive Plan (CCMP) for whole bay and estuary was originally written by the community 22 years ago. This helps guide the work and causes them to look at their priorities and what needs to get done, but also to know that with everything done now, a cut in funding would necessitate looking seriously at what things can be continued.

“I have full confidence that the MBNEP will continue to exist,” Bell commented, “we’ve existed for 22 years, and we are independent as a non-profit. I think we have valuable support in the community. People understand the value of the MBNEP and the community is the reason the MBNEP was funded in the first place. It was a grassroots effort, and I feel confident we will continue, but whether we will look very different if our funding is cut is a possibility.”

Even though the MBNEP office is in the high rent district in Marina Square, owner Stan Trapp gives them a great rate and donates part of the rent. Having the office on the waterfront benefits them since people come in and ask questions and connect to the bay and that contributes to their work.

If cuts do come Bell doesn’t see any changes occurring for personnel. She strongly believes one of the best assets is their fabulous staff. “They come with great skills,” she said, “and we have experts with expertise with such a wide range of issues about the estuary, the watershed and bay, that this is the reason we can do such great work on restoration projects, protect acreage, work on restoring eelgrass, and restoring flood plains. We monitor water quality to a detail level that very few other watersheds experience. Some of the places we monitor, like the back bay where no one else monitors, let the community know the quality of that water.”

They also need skilled people to raise funds for projects, and people to write grants. They now do a yearly fundraising campaign. “There is a history with the estuary program with the Friends of the Estuary,” Bell said, “and with Eco Rotary now fundraising for specific projects, the community can see it and feel it”

“The organization is structured collaboratively and brings in all different parts of the community to work on projects that otherwise wouldn’t get done,” Bell said “and to promote practices that benefit the community, the economy and the environment. That’s why we have the Executive Committee with members from all areas of the community. Any budget cuts wouldn’t just impact us but also other agencies in the area and even the city.

No matter whether they completely do away with the EPA or just do substantial cuts (30% is being considered) their grant is one year delayed. It takes the federal government a year to give them their grant so they would have about a year before impact. They now have two thirds of the year’s funding. This gives them time to adapt. All NEPs went through a reauthorization process recently in Congress assuring that the program will continue to exist. This had bipartisan support. There are 28 NEPs in both conservative and liberal areas of the country and this creates bipartisan support for the programs in the face of uncertainty.