No Time for Bay Slowdown

July 20, 1991

How committed are this region's top elected officials to saving the Chesapeake Bay? At the moment, the answer is hardly encouraging. Lukewarm support from the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia raise troubling concerns.

Some officials generously call the current disinterest in cleaning up the Chesapeake a "pause." But unless this delay is brief, the momentum that has been building in favor of a massive save-the-bay effort could be lost.

Perhaps Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has remained a staunch supporter of this environmental effort, can yet prod his colleagues to action. The region's officials will meet Aug. 6 for the first time in 19 months, but there has been so little groundwork done at this stage that no one even knows what the day's agenda will entail.

Most of the governors' energies in recent months have been absorbed by the continuing financial crisis affecting their states. Huge deficits had to be closed, requiring major cuts in spending. Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey is still ensnared in a massive budget tug of war. Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder has focused more on presidential politics and his dispute with Sen. Charles Robb than on the bay's problems. And Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon remains new to her job.

This leaves Mr. Schaefer as the only top official in the region who can lead a new charge on behalf of the bay. Even in Maryland, though, the recession has forced the governor to curtail some cleanup efforts and to emphasize volunteer actions instead of costly government approaches. At the same time, he was

thwarted by the General Assembly this year in his attempt to impose statewide controls on growth to slow explosive population increases in the Chesapeake watershed.

Though impressive advances have been made in trying to stop further degradation of the bay, that is not enough. The question of cutting pollution flowing from farm land, for instance, needs to be addressed. Additional tightening of sewerage controls are essential. And the gains made in cutting the phosphorus level in the bay and increasing the amount of underwater grasses must be continued.

The biggest issue, though, is how to absorb three million more people moving into the Chesapeake watershed this decade. The impact on the bay's health could be devastating. We urge Governors Schaefer, Wilder and Casey and Mayor Dixon -- as well as Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly -- to use the Aug. 6 meeting to rejuvenate the save-the-bay campaign. It will take a concerted, unified effort by these officials to jump-start this crucial public endeavor.

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