Leaders set to discuss future of bay cleanup

Only modest progress has been achieved since 1983

December 08, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Twenty years after an unprecedented agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, state and national leaders are preparing this week to take stock of the effort and embark on new steps to cut harmful nutrient pollution.

Meeting on the campus of George Mason University - where the 1983 agreement was forged - the collection of governors, regional legislators and the nation's top environmental official face a challenge that's far steeper than what almost anyone realized two decades ago.

"I knew it was going to be difficult, but frankly I thought we'd be further along," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who signed the original agreement on behalf of Maryland. "We knew that we couldn't reverse a couple of hundred years of pollution overnight, but we thought that within 10 years we'd really see great progress.

"Twenty years later, we're not seeing as much progress as we hoped," Hughes said.

While rockfish, shad and underwater grasses have begun to rebound, the populations most crucial to the bay's health and economy - crabs and oysters - appear to have hit historic lows.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which fuels algae blooms harmful to marine life, has been reduced modestly since 1985, but the pace of progress must more than double by 2010 if the states of the bay watershed are to meet their goals.

"The bay region, and the bay restoration, is the finest example of an estuarine cleanup worldwide, yet it is not succeeding," said Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. "Everyone is realizing how extraordinarily difficult it is to clean up pollution after you've created it, and after 20 years of effort, we need to reinvigorate for a second push. It's the only way we'll be successful."

The huge costs - both financial and political - to upgrade sewage treatment plants, improve air quality and change the practices of farmers, homeowners and urban water planners have prompted growing questions about whether the current system of voluntary cooperation is sufficient to overcome the obstacles.

"I don't think we can wait any longer," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President J. Charles Fox, a former top federal water regulator and Maryland Department of Natural Resources secretary. "What is really required is some leadership from the regulatory agencies in implementing the clear language of the law, because the law is on our side."

This fall, the foundation has waged an increasingly vocal campaign to encourage bold actions at this week's meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council - which comprises the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Washington mayor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

The foundation wants all sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed to make expensive upgrades to significantly cut the amount of nitrogen they release. Last week, it filed a petition with the EPA seeking to force that change, with a federal lawsuit likely to follow if the petition is rejected.

If adopted, the restrictions would require the plants to undergo costly upgrades to the latest technology - and remove enough nitrogen for the bay watershed to reach 40 percent of its reduction target. Bay advocates hope that if sewage treatment plants meet tougher standards, it will be easier to persuade farmers to accept restrictions on fertilizer and nutrient runoff.

In a letter sent Friday, all 10 members of Maryland's congressional delegation joined in urging the council to adopt the sewage treatment plant reductions, suggesting that such a decision could make "this 20th year of the bay restoration the year that goes down in history as one of its best and puts restoration of the Chesapeake Bay within reach."

The 1983 agreement was little more than a couple of paragraphs pledging to improve the bay's water quality. There were no specific goals for cutting pollution runoff or reviving the crab population or preserving undeveloped marshes and farmland. But the participants in the conference genuinely believed the momentum was there to make a difference in the bay and its tributaries.

"It was such an exciting time, and it looked to me like things were really going to buzz," said former state Sen. Bernie Fowler, known for his environmental leadership while representing Southern Maryland. "At that meeting, I really thought I had died and gone to heaven."

But the 20 years of restoration efforts haven't been easy.


Early on, scientists in the bay watershed believed that both phosphorus and nitrogen were required to be present in the water to produce harmful algae, said Lowell Bahner, who helped direct bay research prior to the 1983 agreement and is now director of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office.

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