Mr. Ehrlich's modest proposal

September 30, 2005

CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH really ought to sue. The way politicians keep rediscovering the glories of the Chesapeake Bay, one would believe the giant estuary hadn't been seen before. Especially not 398 years ago. But that didn't stop Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from descending on the Eastern Shore with a considerable entourage in tow to announce a multi-agency initiative aimed at cleaning up the Corsica River. The Corsica, one might recall, is considered to be an "impaired" (EPA-speak for polluted) Chesapeake Bay tributary thanks in no small part to the million gallons or so of raw sewage dumped there not long ago by the town of Centreville. No doubt the poor waterway deserves whatever assistance it can get.

Mr. Ehrlich proposes a $19.4 million effort over the next five years with help not only from a variety of state agencies but the federal government and private concerns as well. Much of it would be directed at reducing the flow of pollutants from nearby land, restoring underwater grasses and shoreline, and other proven strategies. The thinking, Mr. Ehrlich's aides say, is that the Corsica will thus become a model for how other rivers and streams might be similarly helped.

This is not a bad thing, of course, but it's an incredibly modest step at a time of genuine crisis for the Chesapeake Bay. By most any measure, the bay's health has been in serious decline for three decades or longer. Much of the contamination, particularly the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus, has only gotten worse as the region's population has grown. Reversing the trend requires making tough choices: stricter environmental laws and enforcement, smart growth and other land use restrictions, and perhaps billions of dollars of investment. All involve sacrifice by people and businesses in the watershed. That's not the sort of message politicians tout in their campaign commercials.

What's especially galling is that Mr. Ehrlich's $19.4 million budget for the Corsica cleanup amounts to a miserly $4 million a year. The same administration is only too happy to a write a check 600 times larger to build a new highway in Montgomery County. At $4 million a year, the governor's Corsica project wouldn't exhaust all the money his budgets have already diverted from Maryland's Program Open Space land preservation efforts - at least not for most of a century. The state spends more fixing up bike paths.

If Mr. Ehrlich wants to convince voters that he's serious about the environment he needs to offer some serious ideas. The Corsica is not the only impaired body of water in Maryland. The vast majority of our rivers and streams have earned that unfortunate label, too. Under these circumstances, a pilot project to help one small Eastern Shore tributary is little more than a drop in the budget.

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