More than a quarter-century ago, the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, along with the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agreed to a partnership to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Since then, the federal role in that partnership has been helpful but all too limited, with states left to do much of the heavy regulatory lifting on their own.
That looks to be changing, and none too soon, given the Chesapeake Bay's compromised condition. Last week, federal agencies released a handful of draft reports outlining a new and more active federal role in bay restoration in response to the executive order issued four months ago by President Barack Obama.
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's promise of a "new era of federal leadership" may prove no empty boast. The reports, particularly the one issued by her agency, envision pushing the envelope of the Clean Water Act's enforcement powers to reduce the flow of pollutants and protect vital habitat.
It could mean, for instance, federal mandates that force states in the 64,000-square-mile watershed to adopt smart growth principles of concentrating new development and preserving open space, more closely regulating farming practices and setting limits of seafood catches on a baywide basis.
Some in the environmental community have suggested the long list of recommendations doesn't go nearly far enough. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker issued a statement calling it "weak and (in need of) strengthening."
But there are limits to how much existing regulations can do. While the EPA's ability to limit the pollution that emerges from industrial or wastewater discharge pipes is clear, its authority in the area of what's known as "non-point source" pollution - run-off from farms or streets, sediment from construction sites and other diffuse sources - is less clear.
That's why the most promising environmental news of the past week may be the release of U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's proposal to amend the Clean Water Act to put the Obama executive order into law and give the government greater powers to regulate run-off in the watershed.
The legislation also comes with a big carrot to go along with the regulatory stick: $1.5 billion to help control urban and suburban storm water run-off over the next five years.
Passage of the Cardin bill is no sure thing. It will require the support of members of Congress from all the affected states, including New York and West Virginia. But supporting the Chesapeake is not only good policy, it's proved to be good politics, as presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush can attest.
There is, however, a difference between the kind of photo-op commitments made by politicians in the past and the financial and policy commitments represented by Messrs. Cardin and Obama. Collectively, they represent the most promising actions taken on behalf of the bay in years, perhaps even decades.
The Chesapeake Bay's health is too badly deteriorated to be terribly sanguine about its future, particularly as development in the region continues to expand. But it's also safe to say it won't improve without the greater federal involvement that now seems at least to have begun.