Promises, promises

November 27, 2006

If Hollywood ever decides to do a remake of the movie Groundhog Day - the one where a TV newsman finds himself covering the same event day after day - and is looking for a scenario suitable for a never-ending time loop, it won't have to search any further than the repetitive calls for and ceremonial signings of pledges to save the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.

If such a movie were made, it would, unfortunately, not be a comedy like the original flick. It would be a farce.

The latest request for a bay cleanup pledge comes from river-protection environmental groups representing five states and the District of Columbia. Their representatives met over the weekend in scenic Shepherdstown, W.Va., overlooking the Potomac River, and signed on to a Declaration of Our Watersheds which, like a pledge to ask for a pledge, calls upon state and federal officials to honor commitments made by previous signers of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. Known as C2K, that pledge set 2010 as a target date for accomplishing a wide-ranging set of goals affecting nearly every air, water and land aspect of the Chesapeake: restoring the oyster and migratory fish populations, accelerating the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation, reducing nutrients that flow into tidal waters and curbing sprawl.

The Chesapeake 2000 agreement is an impressive document and clearly shows that the problems facing the bay have been identified and, in many cases, are quantifiable. But it was not the first of its kind. Similar tough-sounding pledges to restore the bay were issued in 1983 and in 1987. Both were signed during formal ceremonies by governors from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as by federal officials and the mayor of Washington.

Six years later, not a single C2K signatory holds the same office, and the reasons are not because they failed to honor the agreement. The only one who still retains a position of power is Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who will step down from public life in January. In the meantime, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in another Groundhog Day moment, recently issued its annual State of the Bay Report, which gives the bay's health a D grade.

Asking another round of officials to sign another pledge to restore the bay is a sincere - and a bit Sisyphean - exercise. The well-meaning conservationists, who note that many of the politicians' terms will be up in 2010, believe the pledge is one way of keeping signers' feet to the fire come Election Day.

We support the goals of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, but we do not share with equal enthusiasm holding individuals accountable for cleanup targets that were announced well before they came into office. Besides, when it comes to the Chesapeake, history shows us that signed pledges fail to address the real obstacles facing a major bay restoration: a lack of political will and insufficient money. Without both, the health of the bay will continue to get bad grades.

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