Craft of compromise

ON THE BAY

Document : The pending agreement to guide restoration of the Chesapeake has much good and some bad, and offers a hint of the semantic struggle among the parties.

June 16, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WHEN THE new agreement that will guide restoration of the Chesapeake Bay is signed this month, the love-festive official celebration will scarcely allude to months of grueling negotiations that underlie it.

The agreement's wording - crafted as delicately as an international treaty - and changes from earlier drafts of the 13-page document hint at the struggles and compromises.

"Individual responsibility" was diluted to "individual stewardship." And "will strive" pops up in places that cry out for a "will do."

Virginia would agree only to reduce "harmful" sprawl, which implies there is good sprawl, or at least that Virginia wants wiggle room on the touchy issue.

Maryland had its sensitivities, weakening an early, laudable proposal to declare the bay a no-discharge zone for marine toilets and rejecting mention of ending open-water dredge spoil dumping, seen as vital to the port of Baltimore.

A 30 percent expansion of public access became an expansion of "public access points." A "point" could mean as little as adding a parking space at a marina.

For all that the agreement hedges or ignores, I mostly agree with Ann Swanson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the lead drafter of the Chesapeake 2000 document: "No other region of the country has an agreement to protect the environment this strong. ... It's about what's doable and what's achievable, and almost nothing in this document is going to be easy to do."

Indeed, there's much good, ambitious stuff in this second major update of the original 1983 bay restoration agreement committed to by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration:

A goal of increasing oysters tenfold by 2010, a recognition of their value as pollution filters, as well as commercial value and the fish habitat their reefs create.

Acknowledgment that blue crabs are overfished, and a goal of setting harvest levels for them - a rare instance of acting before, not after, a species crashes.

Removing the bay from its "impaired" status under the federal Clean Water Act by 2010. This goes well beyond the current plan to cut major pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus by 40 percent.

Permanently preserve from development 20 percent of the land in the 40 million-acre watershed by 2010 - 1.5 million more acres.

Reduce the rate of harmful sprawl development of forest and farmland in the watershed by 30 percent by 2012. I'm concerned about weasel words like "harmful." Nor does this commit to reducing overall forest and farm loss by 30 percent. Still, it's amazing everyone agreed to this much.

There's more good stuff on reducing toxic chemicals, increasing migratory fish passage, setting bigger restoration targets for submerged grasses and expanding outdoor education.

These bay agreements are essentially voluntary. But as signing the first one in 1983 legitimized concern about watershed problems, this one lends support for holding governments accountable on a range of issues. And unlike previous agreements, this one's full of numbers and targets.

So what else is not here, or watered down? Air pollution has a big impact on water quality, and the agreement virtually ignores this. Ditto for septic tanks.

The goals for forests don't go far enough. The watershed used to be more than 90 percent trees, and is now less than 60 percent - and this is, after all, a restoration agreement, not a hold-the-line agreement. No net loss of forest should be a minimum goal. Wetlands goals are similarly weak.

However, just as the agreement is voluntary regarding the good goals, there's nothing that precludes working in a dozen other ways to achieve things it ignores.

Give the negotiators of this "treaty" credit, though. Since the last draft in December, the new version has been strengthened. "We're pleasantly surprised at how it turned out," says Michael Hirshfield, head of science for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

If there is an Achilles heel, it's the same one as always - population growth. It's perplexing that the document can blithely state an additional 3 million people will move into the bay watershed by 2020, that "this could potentially eclipse" all water quality and habitat gains, and then say nothing more about growth except the need to "accommodate" it.

This is about restoration. To restore the bay while adding millions of people, you have to reduce pollution and habitat loss by enough to cancel their impact before you improve the status quo.

You can't eliminate population growth, but you might slow it. You could begin a debate to examine how more people are, or aren't, linked to economic well-being and quality of life. You might then adjust public policies to be less encouraging of growth. If 2 million people moved here by 2020 instead of 3 million, who would suffer and who would gain? Whom do we owe? The 15 million here, or the 3 million not yet arrived.

One might also ask of a restoration document, restoration to what? An unofficial goal was the 1950s, when many bay systems were relatively intact.

But Ann Swanson feels that time frame never caught on. EPA scientist Kent Mountford, a bay observer, worries that "every generation is going to define what is acceptable at a lower level."

If we take too long to reach goals, future generations, never knowing a bay carpeted with grass beds full of life, or chockablock with oysters, may settle for less.

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