Still missing opportunities


Event: The 20th anniversary of the bay restoration effort was mostly a disappointment.

December 12, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Here's what should have happened and could have happened at the 20th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort at George Mason University on Tuesday.

More than a thousand celebrators from all walks of life should have paraded outside, shouting support for their political leaders. A banner should have proclaimed: "Money for the bay is no tax -- it's an investment, an obligation, a privilege."

Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania, could have showed up, recalling the historic role his predecessor, Dick Thornburgh, played in 1983. Thornburgh made the restoration real by committing to a cleanup by Pennsylvania, which owns none of the Chesapeake but contains 40 percent of its watershed.

Rendell could have joined Govs. Bob Ehrlich of Maryland and Mark Warner of Virginia onstage. Their theme: "A Cleaner Bay by 2010. No excuses."

The three could have spelled out a bold prescription for state-of-the-art controls on all significant sources of sewage and septic pollution throughout the watershed, along with phasing in winter cover crops and other proven techniques to drastically reduce pollution from every farm in the drainage basin.

Joining them, Mike Leavitt, the Environmental Protection Agency's new administrator, could have said: "Air pollution from vehicles and power plants is a third of the bay's problem and largely under federal control. We will match the 40 percent pollution reductions the scientists tell us are needed from sewage and agriculture to restore the bay to the health it enjoyed 50 years ago."

The cost of all this might seem large, the four leaders could have noted -- at least $13 billion. But it works out to 4 or 5 bucks a week for the average family over the next decade.

They could seek federal funds to help out. But either way, citizens had made it clear they wanted a healthy bay -- no more delays, 20 years was enough.

Besides, the leaders could have said, what message would it send the rest of the planet if the richest nation in history said it was too poor to solve its environmental problems?

That's what could have been, what should have been Tuesday, followed by a crab feast. What actually happened at the 20th bay summit was a slapdash, lackluster performance that left one feeling more empty than outraged.

Even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose premeeting rally calling for a sewage cleanup drew about 100 environmentalists, could only muster "disappointing" to describe the day.

Pennsylvania's Rendell didn't bother to come, and his stand-in, Kathleen McGinty, the state's environment secretary, had little to say about seriously reducing the huge volume of farm runoff Pennsylvania sends bayward.

Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River provides 90 percent of the bay's freshwater down to the Potomac, and 45 percent of the bay's total river flow. A cleanup can't happen without Pennsylvania. And nothing Tuesday dispelled the impression that our northern neighbors have become increasingly disengaged from the restoration.

The EPA's Leavitt offered a modest 10 percent reduction in air pollution troubling the bay -- a solution that Maryland has examined and found unlikely to help even that much.

Warner proposed good changes in Virginia, which are under way in Maryland, that will improve sewage pollution.

He and Ehrlich, in the day's biggest "news," pledged an intensified campaign to get billions for the bay in new federal money -- a tough sell at best -- as the states have been looking hard for awhile. At worst, it's another excuse for delay.

State dollars to meet bay goals just aren't there, Ehrlich said, and "even in good times they wouldn't be there."

They won't be if you never ask. We have to persuade our political leaders to stop assuming we're too poor to afford clean air and water, or elect ones who will.

Indeed, Ehrlich's people recently floated a good idea -- a surcharge of a few bucks a month on water and sewer bills to generate large amounts of bay cleanup money.

By Tuesday, they appeared to be backing off after Democrats stupidly jumped on them for suggesting a "flush tax."

No one expected the bay to be saved Tuesday, but many hoped for something on this 20th anniversary to reinvigorate the lagging restoration effort. Last summer was one of the worst for water quality in decades.

Now, the next step may be a lawsuit by the bay foundation, seeking a court-ordered cleanup. That would usher in a new era for the largely voluntary restoration effort.

Maybe the end of an era is what we saw Tuesday -- a once-vaunted, internationally acclaimed environmental effort whose 20th anniversary wasn't worth celebrating.

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