Maryland must act now to save the Chesapeake

March 30, 2004|By William C. Baker

THE FATE OF historic legislation to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay lies with the Maryland Senate.

Passage of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Restoration Fund would provide crucial funding to upgrade Maryland's largest sewage treatment plants to help reduce nitrogen pollution - the bay's biggest obstacle to recovery.

This is clearly the most important legislation for the Chesapeake Bay in many years, not just because it would significantly reduce pollution, but also because it sets a much-needed example for elected officials in other bay watershed states that must take similar action. This bill also represents the coupling of political will and scientific consensus, so often discordant in policy decisions today. The House of Delegates' overwhelming support of its version of the bill has gotten us halfway to the finish line.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the members of the General Assembly have been working together to address one of the root causes of the bay's decline - excessive amounts of nitrogen pollution entering the bay and its tributaries.

Such pollution of our public waters with hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater daily from sewage treatment plants is simply wrong when affordable and readily available technology exists to prevent it. It is a clear violation of the federal Clean Water Act, as well as the public trust doctrine upon which this great country was founded.

The technology-based, proven and affordable solution that is proposed in the bill would create jobs. The legislation would provide the funding to start installing the technology now, paid for with a $2.50 per month fee on all households and a flow-rated fee on businesses.

For a cost of less than a gallon of milk a month per household, Marylanders would make a real and lasting contribution to clean water across the state. And it's about time. With continued pressure from an ever-expanding regional population, last summer's near record "dead zone" (waters with so little dissolved oxygen that fish, oysters and crabs cannot survive) was a clear warning that the health of the bay and its tributary rivers is in increased danger.

Now Maryland has the opportunity to jump-start a multistate compact known as the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. This plan, which outlines a comprehensive approach to bay restoration, has been the focus of a lot of talk, but little action, since its signing in June 2000 by the region's governors, the federal Environmental Protection Agency administrator and other officials.

The agreement calls for reducing nitrogen pollution flowing into the bay by 110 million pounds annually. This amount is the minimum necessary to restore water quality, reduce the size of the bay's dead zone and remove the bay from the EPA's list of impaired waters. The deadline for achieving the goals of the agreement is 2010. If Maryland intends to meet that deadline, the General Assembly must pass the sewage bill this year.

While stopping pollution from sewage treatment plants would not solve the bay's problems, it is a critically important first step.

The bay is a national, if not international, treasure. Thirty years of multimillion-dollar scientific investigation has produced absolute clarity as to why the bay continues to die. Finally, the political will to take real action is beginning to emerge.

Good science and political will saved the rockfish population in 1985. Now it's time to take the next step toward saving the bay.

William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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