Promises, promises

Our view: Administration's plan for a healthier Chesapeake Bay and EPA settlement raise hopes, but will these developments be enough to address the estuary's long-standing problems?

May 16, 2010

A turning point. A fresh start. A new hope. How often have Marylanders heard these words spoken about the future of the Chesapeake Bay over the last quarter-century or more? Usually they are articulated by politicians touting some new multi-state agreement or strategy that they insist will lead to a cleaner, healthier body of water.

In recent days, these all-too-familiar promises have been heard again, this time on the strength of two seemingly linked events — a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation against federal regulators for not sufficiently enforcing Clean Water Act standards and the release of the Obama administration's plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay by essentially doing what the environmentalists have long been seeking.

Both boil down to promises of future actions. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and others say this time will be different, with specific goals and timetables for reducing the stream of pollutants, chiefly nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments, that have done so much harm to the bay and its tributaries.

Is this truly a new beginning for the nation's largest estuary, or just business as usual? The public is more than entitled to have doubts.

But it would also be wrong to wholly dismiss it. There are any number of reasons for this, but two are most important. First, the promised strategy of an active and aggressive EPA holding states in the watershed accountable for pollution levels is clearly the Chesapeake Bay's best chance for change. As history has amply demonstrated, individual states can't make these difficult choices alone.

Just as critically, there are too many signs, albeit modest ones, that the bay is improving to ignore what an even greater effort might accomplish. The revival of the blue crab — a record 60 percent increase in the population this year, according to recent estimates — is the most encouraging of these, but there are others.

Underwater grasses and oysters have made gains in recent years. The bay's dead zones (areas of water that lack the dissolved oxygen to support life) have not been as great as predicted. Maryland and Virginia have embraced aquaculture and sustainable resource management practices far beyond their previous efforts.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to suggest that efforts to curb pollution to date have been unsuccessful. On a per-capita basis, people produce less pollution than 25 years ago. But it has not been enough, particularly to compensate for population growth or to address the one source of pollution that's been on the upswing: storm water runoff from development.

How important is what happened this week? Consider that some of those who stand to be regulated are speaking out strongly against it. In Virginia, conservatives are already talking about the federal government interfering with land use decisions. Legal challenges are likely to be brought by polluters who don't want to see the EPA role expanded — or fear the Chesapeake Bay model may be replicated elsewhere.

All of which suggests that, yes, the settlement and EPA plan present an opportunity, perhaps even a critical one, for the bay's health. But it is just one more step along what has been a long and difficult road. The federal government also needs to bring resources to bear, and Congress can help by approving legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and others that would commit at least $1.5 billion toward the effort.

Regulators who set tough but fair pollution control standards with reasonable deadlines for meeting them and then stand unflinchingly behind them — that's what is desperately needed for a revival of the Chesapeake Bay. This is what the EPA is promising, and that's something even skeptical Marylanders should be pleased to hear.

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