Turning the tide

January 15, 2007

The clock is ticking on the promise Maryland's elected leaders made in 2000 to significantly reduce the pollution going into the Chesapeake Bay by 2010. Current projections are that the state is only about halfway to its pledge to eliminate 20 million pounds of nitrogen annually from such sources as sewage plants and farm and stormwater runoff.

Making greater headway, environmental advocates say, requires money.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley and members of the General Assembly are in a position to do something about that this year. It won't be easy. Because of a state deficit that's projected to grow to more than $1 billion by the next fiscal year, the needed funding just isn't available in the current budget.

But what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is proposing could overcome this obstacle. The nonprofit advocacy group is lobbying state officials to create a "green fund" that would finance pollution-control efforts tributary by tributary. In theory, it could be a highly efficient way to extract the maximum amount of pollution at the minimum cost.

As envisioned by the foundation, the fund would be managed by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the nonprofit organization that dispenses money to many bay restoration efforts (financed, in large part, by the sale of bay license plates and an income-tax checkoff). In areas where farm runoff is a problem, the trust might offer matching funds so farmers could create buffer zones along streams. Where stormwater is the culprit, the trust might team with local towns to underwrite erosion-control projects.

That kind of targeted, cost-sharing effort makes sense. Simply recommending good practices or even mandating them doesn't usually work - planting buffers, for example, is too expensive (and too often reduces future crop production) for family farmers to attempt on their own. Yet properly managed farms are far less polluting than most other land uses and so ought to be encouraged.

Green fund advocates have recommended that the state's share of the program - perhaps $50 million per year - be financed by raising the state's Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program (VEIP) fee from $14 to $45, which is similar to what's charged by some neighboring states.

That's far from ideal - the biennial fee is already unpopular and regressive (it's not required in many rural counties). But a dedicated fee of some kind makes sense. It's well past time Maryland's elected leaders made good on the state's promise to get serious about Chesapeake Bay pollution.

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