The failing bay

November 15, 2005

The Chesapeake Bay is way past the parent-teacher conference stage. Earning a grade of D (and a generous one at that, considering its score for overall health was 27 out of a possible 100 points) on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual State of the Bay report card is bad enough. But it's also a chronic underachiever and has been for years - thanks to its inattentive guardians.

The bay's worst grades were for its most daunting problems: high levels of nutrients, low levels of dissolved oxygen and the pitiful state of its native oyster population. A few of the categories are actually up ever so slightly from last year, but not enough to offer hope.

But the greatest threat facing the Chesapeake may be the danger of diminishing expectations and a loss of urgency. How many more years can the public hear about the bay's expanding dead zone before people stop listening at all? Planting a few trees or imposing a new tax - even one that helps rebuild ailing sewage systems - can be helpful, but only to a limited extent. The problem is simply bigger than any one solution can hope to address.

No, what the Chesapeake Bay needs is a strategy similar to that employed with a failing student - a comprehensive and disciplined plan that accepts no excuses. Five years ago, the region's political leaders pledged to reduce pollution to the bay by 2010. They need to stick to that goal. But it will require leadership, particularly in Annapolis, where complacency and partisan politics are major obstacles.

Officials at the bay foundation suggest that such an approach would begin by paying farmers to plant cover crops, create buffer zones near waterways and better manage animal waste. They'd also like to see more money spent to preserve farmland - and create financial incentives to keep farmers in business. That seems reasonable. But the Ehrlich administration must also reverse course and become more aggressive in enforcing existing pollution laws. A reinvigorated Smart Growth strategy that fights sprawl, for instance, would add considerable credit to the bay's future report cards.

It's up to the people most responsible for the Chesapeake Bay's ill health - the 16 million people who live in the watershed - to insist on change. With a few friends in Annapolis (and Richmond, the District of Columbia, and Harrisburg, for starters), a passing mark might still be within reach.

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