Strategies for bay show us the way

ON THE BAY

Goals: Leaders need to put the talk about combating pollution into action.

March 19, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND'S natural resources secretary has declared it's time to fish or cut bait on cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

Ron Franks used bureaucratic language when he spoke Saturday to citizens and environmental officials who have labored for years on detailed, science-based plans to restore the bay by the end of the decade.

"We have reached the point where implementation stands before us," he said. In other words, no more excuses.

On one level, you had to feel gratified. We know all sources of bay pollution, how to reduce each (and by how much) and what it will cost.

Attendees at the meeting were members of so-called Tributary Teams, who are finishing 50 cleanup strategies here and in other states tailored to every bay-river system.

There was united support for action from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s bay leaders: Franks, Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick, Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley, Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott and top University of Maryland bay scientist Don Boesch.

"I see the governor's leadership emerging in a way that seemed unlikely even a year ago," said Boesch.

But on another level, I kept thinking how nearly 21 years had passed since state and federal officials first proclaimed they would restore the bay.

So many meetings, so many calls to action, so many pledges to get the job done. We set initial goals through this tributary process about a decade ago, and have hit almost none of them by the deadline.

Not that we wouldn't have been far worse off without it. There was never a year you could say we weren't trying or moving forward in one area or another.

Once I wrote how "`saving the bay' can become almost a state of grace, like tithing, allowing us to proceed comfortably with business as usual in the rest of our lives."

Looking back, it's clear that without a lot more accountability, enforceability and consequences for missing deadlines than there have been to date, the next decade will be a replay of the last two - always making "progress."

But that's not restoration, which means turning the bay's overall health back 50 years or so. To do that, we need to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus polluting it by about twice as much in the next six years as we have during the past 15 or so.

On paper, the new tributary strategies - to be released in a month or so after review by the governor's office - do this.

But a reality check shows how hard it will be. Some examples:

Septic tanks, which serve homes not connected to sewers, send 12 million pounds of polluting nitrogen into the bay annually - up from 10 million pounds in the 1980s.

The new draft "tribs" strategy shows 100 percent of all new septic tanks installed using technology that removes nitrogen; also half of all existing tanks will be retrofitted.

But no law or regulation requires that, and virtually no one's doing it - or even proposing it. Pending legislation in Maryland would indirectly tax septic tanks, but uses none of the money to fund technology to remove nitrogen from new or existing ones.

Urban storm-water runoff is about 16 percent of the nitrogen and 24 percent of the phosphorus entering the bay. The draft strategy calls for controlling about 40 percent of that.

Currently, Maryland is controlling no more than 7 percent. New Environmental Protection Agency regulations extend storm-water controls to more developments, but nothing on the radar screen will reduce pollution by close to 40 percent.

Agriculture creates about 40 percent of the bay's nitrogen and phosphorus from Maryland. Key in the new draft strategies is putting winter "cover crops" on 600,000 acres to suck up polluting nutrients before they enter the bay.

But that's seven times what we're doing now. Costing about $25 an acre per year, there's no money for the additional coverage.

And even with the current winter cover-crop acreage, Maryland lets farmers who are busy with fall harvests plant after the time of year when it is most effective.

Overall, the tributary strategies assume a pollution reduction from agriculture that has never been achieved, even in carefully managed pilot studies.

The strategies assume a 30 percent reduction in sprawl development, retaining more open space to filter polluted runoff.

But virtually all counties continue high levels of development outside areas designated to concentrate growth; and the message Saturday from Scott, the state's planning secretary, was to leave things in local hands.

One could go on - the states of the bay watershed are only now appointing a panel to seek the $11 billion needed to meet restoration needs; Virginia and Pennsylvania, the other principal bay states, lag behind Maryland in their tribs strategies.

There is a "stick" if the states don't deliver by 2010: The EPA will impose its own cleanup plan. But the mechanism for that is largely untried, and itself prone to slippage.

The citizens and officials who have brought Maryland's tribs strategies to this point deserve tremendous thanks. They have set the bar high enough, finally, to restore the bay. They have shown us the way.

But whether the states will walk the talk, whether they are entering a decade of bay restoration or just tweaking the current bay-saving state of grace, is very much an open question.

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