Let's truly treasure the Chesapeake

January 23, 2007|By William C. Baker

What kind of legacy do our children deserve? Rivers, streams and a Chesapeake Bay with "dead zones," fish kills and beach closures? Or a restored bay with clean water, abundant fish and safe beaches and recreational opportunities?

For years, the Chesapeake Bay has languished in critical condition, but last year we witnessed a glimmer of hope. After years of no improvement, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's "State of the Bay" health index improved two points, to 29 out of 100.

This small, positive change was long overdue. In 2000, our elected officials committed to reduce pollution sufficiently to remove the bay from the nation's list of "dirty waters" by 2010. To do that, scientists have determined, Maryland must reduce its share of nitrogen pollution by 20 million pounds a year, out of a watershed-wide goal of 110 million pounds annually. With current programs and levels of funding, we will achieve only half that goal. In a state where residents proclaim "Treasure the Chesapeake" on their license plates, that is unacceptable.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes that efforts to restore the bay by 2010 may be at a tipping point. Success or failure is in the hands of Maryland's newly elected leaders, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. The 2010 deadline will occur on the watch of these officials.

To achieve the goal of a restored bay, state government must take a three-pronged approach: fully implement Maryland's tributary strategies with a priority on agricultural practices (with both state and federal funding), control poorly planned development, and strictly enforce existing laws.

The tributary strategies, scientifically developed plans to reduce nitrogen pollution, are the road map for necessary actions. Runoff from agricultural land and suburban sprawl is a significant source of pollution. There is broad consensus that the most cost-effective plan to reduce pollution is to implement the agricultural conservation practices outlined in the tributary strategies. However, implementation has been inadequate. That must change.

Thriving, well-managed farmlands are vital to the long-term health of the bay and the region's economy. Bay-area farmers face increasing costs and decreasing profits. While they have demonstrated that they are willing to do the right thing to improve water quality, they cannot shoulder the burden alone.

The governor and General Assembly must build bipartisan support for creating a dedicated "green fund" that would provide farmers the resources necessary to implement sustainable conservation practices and ensure long-term investments in protecting Maryland's water quality.

Governor O'Malley must also work with Congress to match those state efforts with new support from the federal farm bill, which is scheduled to be reauthorized this spring. Because of the way the current farm bill is structured, local farm families have been severely shortchanged. Only 4 cents per dollar of agricultural production is returned to this region's farmers, compared with a national average of 9 cents.

Providing the region's farmers with their fair share of the farm bill to install proven conservation practices - such as planting cover crops, installing forested buffers along waterways and restoring wetlands - would benefit local farmers, taxpayers and water quality. Technical and financial assistance for agricultural conservation practices is a smart investment in the future and a wise use of public funds.

The governor should also call for an emergency meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, reestablishing it as a meaningful and effective vehicle for regional cooperation on bay restoration.

Governor O'Malley and the General Assembly must also work together to address the damage that poorly planned development inflicts on the health of our waterways. Working together, they must implement legislation to establish regional land-use plans and authorities that will preclude future Blackwater Resort-type mega-developments and make Maryland a leader in managing growth and protecting our natural resources.

The attorney general must enforce the law. Polluters should be held accountable, whether in Maryland or out of state, such as the coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. We welcome Mr. Gansler's commitment to wage "an all-out assault on those who pollute our air and our water and pollute the Chesapeake Bay."

These are large tasks that call for vision and leadership. Our elected officials must move to speed up putting the tributary strategies into effect to reduce pollution and restore local rivers, streams and our national treasure, the Chesapeake Bay. Clean water is every citizen's right. And it is the legacy our children and future generations deserve.

William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His e-mail is chesapeake@cbf.org.

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