Cleanup's pace causes concern

ON THE BAY

Progress: The postponement of recovery efforts is taking its toll on the Chesapeake.

November 14, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IN RECENT DAYS, two respected bay experts have publicly differed on how the Chesapeake Bay is doing. Who's right?

"The politics of postponement are continuing to kill the bay, always putting off until tomorrow the decisions that should be made today," says Will Baker, longtime president of the private, nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Is [the bay] moving in the right direction. Yes. Is it as fast as it could be? No. But it is happening," says Rich Batiuk, longtime lead scientist of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.

Baker, who recently committed his organization to a more aggressive campaign to restore the bay, has been pounding away on this past summer's "dead zone," an area encompassing 40 percent of the Chesapeake's volume that had too little dissolved oxygen for aquatic life.

It was the fifth-worst dead zone in history, and, after 20 years of concerted federal-state attempts to restore the bay, it was not many people's idea of progress.

Batiuk, who preferred to look at trends from data averaged over many years, correctly pointed out that these zones are showing modest but real reductions in the pollutants such as nitrogen that cause them.

Another big factor in the creation of dead zones is heavy rainfall, which washes more pollution into the bay. The past year has been close to the wettest in modern history, and Batiuk notes that an even worse dead zone would have resulted if not for the past 20 years of restoration efforts.

"We were expecting the worst ... but it wasn't the worst," he says.

Along with most people involved with the bay's struggles, I have great respect for Baker and Batiuk. No one doubts that either wants anything but a speedy recovery for this troubled estuary.

Batiuk's job is not to rattle sabers, though he knows as well as anyone that there's little chance of meeting the 2010 goals for reducing pollution in the bay by almost half. He's a scientist, working for a government agency that is under duress from a presidential administration and a congressional leadership that is as anti-environmental as any we've seen in a long while.

Baker's job absolutely includes rattling sabers, as befits someone who aggressively solicits millions of dollars a year based on the promise of restoring the bay to health as soon as possible.

It's not a matter of who's right. Baker and Batiuk are both giving us perfectly valid information. It's more a question of whether you believe the progress we've been making to date will lead to a restored bay.

I don't. That was the key premise of a book I finished this year, Turning the Tide. It was written for Baker's Bay Foundation with funding from the Abell Foundation. (Did Baker tell me what to write? All the time. Did I do what he said? Whenever I agreed. A lot of my material came from Batiuk and his able colleagues at the Bay Program).

To simplify vastly, the book looks at the major sources of bay pollution and assesses the prospects for progress in the foreseeable future. For example, are there timetables, enforceable deadlines, adequate funding and good accounting for pollution reductions?

For air pollution, which accounts for a third of bay pollution, one can confidently expect some reduction from power plants, but nothing in line with what the bay needs for recovery. There will be little progress from vehicles, the other big source of bad air.

In agriculture, which produces 40 percent of bay pollution, we're going back and revising downward the estimates of cleanup progress over the last couple decades. Nothing ensures a leap forward soon.

For sewage, about 25 percent of the bay's pollution load, we'll get substantial progress, but not nearly as much as existing, proven technology allows.

As the book explains, the longer we wait, the harder it gets, because more people move here each day. To have any meaning, all pollution reductions have to be permanently maintained as ultimate limits, or the million or so new people moving to the region each decade will drive them back up.

There's a less technical concern too: The bay has been in its present, degraded shape for about 30 years. A lot of the 16 million people in the watershed today have been born here, moved here or come of age in that time. To them, this is normal. Another decade or so without real recovery and it's over - except for us old-timers' shouting.

It is good to acknowledge progress, but to be complacent about what we've achieved to date, to be naive about the prospects for doing better, really will be the death of the bay.

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