Bay cleanup deserves new commitment

Chesapeake: The region failed to achieve the ambitious goal set in 1987, but it's not too late to get serious about reducing pollution.

January 07, 2001|By William C. Baker

DEC. 31 should have been a day we celebrated for achieving a historic milestone for the Chesapeake Bay. But the celebration did not happen. A much-ballyhooed goal was missed - not by an inch, but by a mile.

In 1987, Governors William Donald Schaefer of Maryland and Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia struck up an unlikely alliance. With Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey and other regional and federal officials, they set a goal of reducing the flow of polluting nutrients by 40 percent by Dec. 31, 2000. This was the minimum reduction the bay needed, according to a multimillion-dollar water quality computer model.

Yet the ink had barely dried on the governors' 1987 agreement when the goal mysteriously started shrinking. First, officials explained, the 40 percent reduction would apply only to "controllable" sources of pollutants. Natural sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, like forests, could not fairly be part of the reduction goal. This seemed reasonable because natural sources accounted for only a minor amount, anyway.

Soon, however, sources of airborne nitrogen pollution to the bay (power plants, factories, cars and trucks) were also designated "uncontrollable" and, therefore, exempted. So were the nutrient loads from the other watershed states - New York, West Virginia, and Delaware. When all the whittling away was finished, the 40 percent goal for nitrogen, the biggest problem for the bay, had been cut to only 21 percent. And yet the claim remained - we're reducing nutrients by 40 percent, which will restore the bay.

One might conclude that reducing pollutant loads by 21 percent over 13 years in the face of population growth, while not perfect, is a major accomplishment that is good for the bay.One might further assume that whittling down the goal made it more easily achievable in the time available. Not a bad strategy, after all - save the bay in bite-size pieces.

But, sadly, even the 21 percent reduction goal has been missed - and won't be achieved anytime soon.

Let me give credit for what has been accomplished, before I get accused of being the voice of gloom by all of those truly dedicated men and women in government trying to do the best job possible under political and budgetary constraints.

First, many large sewage treatment plants (mostly in Maryland) have been upgraded to significantly improved treatment levels. Many farmers are working cooperatively to more efficiently apply fertilizer to their fields in order to reduce runoff to the bay. And some industries have gone beyond the precise letter of the law to reduce their discharge of polluting nutrients more than the required minimum.

All of this, and more, has been the result of two things - Schaefer and Baliles' vision of setting a specific numeric goal with a firm deadline, and actions by the leaders of the bay states, particularly Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Bravo!

Nevertheless, these praiseworthy reductions, as challenging as they may have been to reach, were the low-hanging fruit.

To make real progress, we need to get serious about reducing nutrient pollution from all segments of society. Our elected officials, from the top down, must put the full weight of their offices behind specific actions that will reduce nutrients not a mere 21 percent, but the 50 percent or so that scientists tell us is necessary to really restore the bay. In order to comply with the Clean Water Act, nothing less will suffice - and all six watershed states and the District of Columbia need to act.

Where to start? Key actions include improvements from all of the "traditional" sources.

All sewage plants should be upgraded to state-of-the-art technology, not just the two-thirds supposed to be done by this year (and only half were completed). It's time to finally stop allowing sewage treatment plants to continue to expand the tons of nitrogen they pump into the bay. Deferred maintenance should also be addressed.

The archaic storm-water systems and sanitary sewers of Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., should be eliminated, while Baltimore's aging infrastructure should be repaired. These steps would stop tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage from flowing into local streams and rivers annually - not the largest source of nutrients to the bay, but surely the most offensive, particularly to local residents.

Farmers who are only marginally profitable, at best, must receive a fair share of financial assistance to help them reduce runoff. And it is time to address pollution from automobiles, trucks, power plants and industry. This effort needs to include sources from outside the watershed, such as the power plants and factories of the Ohio Valley, where much of our air pollution originates.

Finally, the bay watershed's great filters - the forests, wetlands, underwater grasses and oyster reefs - must be rebuilt, restoring nature's own treatment systems.

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