Cleaning up the Chesapeake

January 06, 2000

THE health of the Chesapeake Bay is vital to the more than 15 million people who live in the estuary's watershed, which stretches from New York to Virginia. No state is more affected by the bay than Maryland.

Sixteen years ago, the first Chesapeake Bay agreement committed the states and federal government to work together to clean up the deteriorating ecological system.

That was followed in 1987 by a framework for action for the next dozen years, focusing on the reduction of polluting nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay and its tributaries.

Chesapeake 2000 is the new evaluation of cleanup progress since the 1980s and provides a guideline for the next decade. In the document, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are to undertake a variety of actions to nurture and restore the continent's largest estuary.

The draft agreement is open for public comment before final adoption, which is expected in June. We asked people involved with issues related to the bay what they see as a specific priority for the next decade, while recognizing that a multifaceted approach to the challenge is needed.

John R. Griffin is general manager for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The overarching concern is effective growth management, land-use policies in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia that will affect the bay for the next 30 to 40 years.

Success or failure can be measured in that length of time. If we don't turn it around in that time, then the whole thing will be lost.

It takes a wrenching change in thinking by the people in the Chesapeake region: changes in lifestyles, cultural views, government action.

Effective growth management and good resource management lessen the burden of technology to solve pollution and other problems of the bay.

We need a balance of a regional framework and individual state discretion. There must be a set of objectives for the region, but with the latitude of states to achieve them through various programs, such as forestland protection, curbing vehicle-miles traveled, and so forth. And until we do that, we can't effectively deal with specific cleanup technology programs.

Maryland has a greater responsibility for the bay than others. We have more bay tributaries. And we haven't done as much as we should to protect this invaluable natural resource.

Maryland's policy of growth management ranks high compared with other states, and we have dedicated a fair amount of resources to the problem.

Yet growth management remains the biggest eyesore for the bay program. It must be a pervasive issue for us all if we are to make significant progress. Given the history in Maryland, it will not be an easy objective to achieve.

Frances H. Flanigan is executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

What's the most important aspect of the bay agreement to be signed in 2000?

Some will say water quality -- we must keep making it better. Some will say habitat -- wetlands, forests and grass beds need to be protected. Some will say land use -- if we don't figure out how to "grow smarter," all the investment of the past two decades will be obliterated by growth.

These are all right answers and important elements of the bay cleanup. But perhaps most critical for 2000 is the unique political partnership. Six political entities joined voluntarily in 1983 and pledged to work together on bay restoration efforts. The partnership has worked well. It is probably the best example in the United States of a voluntary association of political leaders who have collectively agreed on goals but allowed each partner the flexibility to reach the goals in its own way.

It has become abundantly clear that neither Maryland nor the federal government nor any of the partners working alone can save the Chesapeake Bay. The collective effort of all -- and with them their vast constituency of 14 million citizens -- must collaborate to succeed.

The real challenge of the coming decade will be maintaining the political will and public support throughout the watershed to finish the job we have so boldly begun.

George M. O'Donnell is president of the Queen Anne's County Commission and a former waterman.

Some of our public goals lack consistency. We would like to see open water dredge dumping a thing of the past because it directly conflicts with the cleanup goals we are trying to achieve. The recharge of phosphorus and nitrogen into the bay waters through rehandling and dumping of dredge spoil severely affects the water quality of the Chesapeake.

We have programs for nutrient management on land; what we do on land affects the bay. But there are inconsistencies in the policy that allow open dredge spoil dumping in the bay like we did 25 years ago.

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