An intervention for the bay

September 25, 2006

Nothing subtle about the message screamed out this summer by the Chesapeake Bay.

Major beaches closed to protect swimmers from bacterial infections. Widespread reports of sick, dying and even deformed fish. A dead zone unable to sustain any form of sealife that covers nearly one-third of the bay.

"The bay has been crying out for help," said Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. New initiatives announced Friday by the region's governors are welcome but not nearly sweeping enough to provide the lifesaving intervention the bay requires. What's needed is speed, boldness and resolve.

In Maryland, this means scrapping an outmoded land-use process that lets every county and municipality make zoning decisions without regard to the impact on its neighbors, and identifying steady sources of financing for bay improvements.

Regional planning is smart for many reasons. With huge growth pressure under way on the Eastern Shore and due to hit Central Maryland with the arrival of thousands of defense jobs, a comprehensive approach to allocation of services and protection of open space is crucial.

Local governments jealously guard their zoning powers, and should maintain most of them. But managing development - the major contributor to degradation of the bay - demands regional oversight. A precedent has been established by the Critical Areas Commission, which reviews development proposals for a bay buffer zone.

As for finances, Maryland made a good start two years ago when it approved the so-called flush tax, which assesses every property owner a small monthly fee to pay for upgrading sewage treatment plants. Recent concerns about whether those upgrades are encouraging further development can be addressed through regional planning.

Anne Arundel County may also soon take the lead in implementing a waterway restoration fee to repair shoreline erosion and storm damage. Other counties should follow.

More money is needed for purposes such as helping farmers adopt bay-friendly practices, including planting cover crops. Regional governors pledged to try to leverage their clout to get federal help for agricultural programs through an update of the farm bill. Ultimately, though, responsibility for cleaning up the bay lies with those who live here.

At the current cleanup rate, Maryland is decades off pace to meet its water quality commitments by the 2010 deadline. Officials elected - or re-elected - this year will still be in office then, and should be held accountable.

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