Cleanup gets price tag

ON THE BAY

Deficit: A consensus report suggests another $13 billion is needed to restore the bay's health.

January 10, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE MICROSOFT BAY? The Exxon-Potomac River?

Do not take that seriously, warns fiscal analyst Craig Biggs. But auctioning naming rights to the Chesapeake and its rivers did start looking attractive after months of compiling the true costs of restoring the bay.

The multibillion-dollar price tag won't even get lip service in the short run, with all three principal bay watershed states in the throes of budget deficits.

But in the slightly longer run, a huge opportunity exists for real environmental progress in this must-read report, The Cost of a Clean Bay.

Coming from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, it's a serious consensus document.

And a courageous one. For years there's been an acknowledged need to develop a realistic financial-needs plan to accompany all the lofty commitments toward returning the Chesapeake to health.

Before, conventional wisdom was to avoid it, for fear the price would scare people and slow what progress was being made.

But whoever got what they needed by fearing to say what it was? Now, for the first time, we've got a realistic idea of the financial resources needed to accomplish all those things that federal and state government have reaffirmed - every year since 1983 - that we must do restore a healthy, livable environment in the bay region.

The big picture goes like this:

It's going to take about $19 billion through the end of the decade. Current and projected spending at all levels of government is about $6 billion.

That leaves a funding gap of about $13 billion - what we've got to come up with to put our money where our mouths are.

If you break it down by state, Maryland's "gap" is the smallest, about $3 billion, compared with about a $5 billion gap each for Virginia and Pennsylvania. Maryland's needs are equally as great, but we're already spending more on bay cleanup commitments.

No one knows exactly how to close the $13 billion gap between what the bay needs and what it's getting now; but the Chesapeake Bay Commission report shows that closing the gap need not be all that complicated or radical.

By far the biggest need is improving water quality - $9.4 billion of the total $13 billion funding gap lies here. The bulk of the cost would be for removing more nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, from sewage and from farmland runoff.

With sewage, the technology is there, it's proven, and it's getting better fairly rapidly. And there are well-established ways to pay for it (as in your sewer and water bills' going up, or through federal and state loan funds).

For farmland, measures like planting winter cover crops to absorb polluted runoff and insuring farmers against risk if they agree to use less fertilizer promise to be both environmentally effective and cost-effective. For these and other measures, an excellent case can be made for added investment.

The Cost of a Clean Bay's analysis ranges from restoring oysters and bay grasses to providing environmental education, promoting Smart Growth and protecting forests and wetlands. All these are covered in more than 100 separate commitments in the recent Chesapeake 2000 agreement signed by the states and federal government.

A heightened emphasis on protecting and enhancing the bay watershed's natural lands should emerge if the report stimulates the debate it should on the most cost-effective ways to close the gap between needs and current spending.

That is because you get so incredibly much free work out of forests and wetlands, such as removing huge quantities of air and water pollutants and performing storm-water control and purification. They provide such services just by being, whereas that work costs us billions where we have had to do it with manmade controls and treatments.

A harder look at cost-effectiveness in bay cleanup can only enhance our commitment to Smart Growth, whose fiscal savings in reduced county services are as important as saving farms and other open space.

The report's $19 billion price tag and the $13 billion funding gap are still major obstacles. But remember, this is over eight years, and across a 64,000- square-mile watershed populated by about 16 million people.

Remember also that there is a legitimate case to be made for the Chesapeake as a "national treasure," which should get substantially more than the $1 billion or so annually that comes from federal sources. The Everglades restoration, for example, is getting $8 billion of its $15 billion total cost from the federal government.

The opportunity now is to form a major, watershed-wide campaign around the Cost of a Clean Bay report, develop specific strategies to maximize cleanup bucks and use the report to hold the feet of every level of government to the fire.

A small example: The Sun reported Monday how Howard County, whose citizens are among the wealthiest in the bay region, has shortchanged its storm-water pollution duties rather than require households to spend an extra $23 each annually to clean out holding ponds. It's hypocritical and outrageous, and hardly confined to Howard.

It's time to put our money (which could be in tax incentives, regulatory requirements, public-private partnerships and other forms besides direct payments) where our mouth has been for these past 20 years since the first bay cleanup commitment in 1983.

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