Lessons from the past and the decade ahead

ON THE BAY

Goals: What will it take to do more than just hold the line on bay pollution?

April 13, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HERE IS THE central question for the future of the Chesapeake Bay: What will make the next decade better than the last 10 years or so?

If answers aren't forthcoming, and soon, it's all but guaranteed we will be sitting here in 2010, recounting battles won, lamenting that the war hasn't gone any better.

That's the situation after Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and the federal government set cleanup goals in 1987 to reverse huge losses of water quality and habitat.

We've mostly met those goals, not unconscionably far behind schedule, becoming internationally recognized as a model for large-scale environmental restoration.

We can fairly claim that, given rapid population growth, things would have been a lot worse if not for all the effort. But the big indicators of bay illness -- the large volumes of oxygen-poor waters, the 90 percent decline in underwater grasses -- have scarcely budged.

The goals set in 1987 seemed ambitious at the time. They not only weren't enough, they weren't even close.

For example, take the latest assessment for the largest bay pollutant, the nitrogen that comes from sewage, polluted air, and agricultural and other land runoff. Since the mid-1980s, we have reduced nitrogen from 360 million pounds a year to about 290 million pounds -- a cut of 70 million pounds.

What will it really take to restore the bay's health? It appears reductions of another 100 million pounds, and possibly closer to 160 million, will be needed.

Last year, the state and federal governments agreed to a new set of cleanup goals to be met by 2010. As in 1987, they seem ambitious. There is much about them to laud.

But will they make the next decade one of markedly greater progress than the last? No expert I have talked to thinks so.

It's time to lay out what it will take, or stop selling this as a "restoration" program and call it, more correctly, a "hold the line, maybe" program.

The above thoughts arise from a project that is forcing me to look, in some detail, back a decade and ahead to the next, to examine my credibility in more ways than one.

Ten years ago, as an employee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I wrote "Turning the Tide," a book about what it would take to save the bay.

I have contracted with the foundation to update and rewrite the book. This raised an issue about my credibility, since I write about the foundation as The Sun's part-time environmental columnist, free-lancing for the rest of my income.

Newspapers criticize public officials and others, not just for conflicts of interest, but for the appearance of conflict.

So though I am the book's principal author, and the logical person to redo it, is it ethical for me to take money (about $15,000) from a group I mention in my columns?

Opinions varied among my editors at The Sun. Ultimately, they allowed me to do it. I will also continue writing the column.

The other way credibility enters the picture is the book itself. I don't feel we pulled any punches in what "Turning the Tide" said 10 years ago. But in retrospect, I wish we'd tried to spell out more clearly what it would take to get to a healthy bay. I think this time around, we've got the benefit of experience and better science.

I'm convinced the next decade won't likely be better than the last without making leaps in these broad areas:

Money: Boosting spending on everything from sewage treatment to open-space preservation to oyster restoration is vital.

How much more money? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation offers a preliminary estimate of $8.5 billion additional spending during the next 10 years. That works out to about 15 cents per person per day among the 15 million people in the Chesapeake watershed.

Technology: Every sewage treatment plant affecting the bay must operate at or near the limits of cleanup technology. Likewise for new autos, new power plants and new septic tanks.

Pollution running off the land must be far better controlled, by cleaning up agriculture, by paving less in new developments and by restoring huge areas of wetlands and forests.

Leadership, both state and federal, is key to achieving any largely voluntary goals such as those in the bay restoration agreement. Among governors, only Maryland's Parris N. Glendening has been an environmental leader. The leaderships of the three state legislatures have no bay champion. The Bush administration seems bent on rolling back federal protection for air, water and land.

Smart Growth, for all the genuine hope that it will help stop sprawl and the waste of open space, only gets at where we grow, not how much. I think it's unlikely we can continue to add millions of people to the bay watershed and make the water cleaner. You have to reduce pollution enough to offset all your population increase before you can even begin working on restoring water quality.

The good news is that we haven't come close to making a truly huge effort at bay restoration, except by the lax standards of the decades before the 1980s. Surpassing progress of the past decade shouldn't be all that daunting. But it will never happen without a clear look, soon, at what it will take.

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