A Bay Full of Broken Promises
By Gerald W. Winegrad and Howard Ernst
Washington Post, May 22, 2009
Last December marked the 25th anniversary of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement. More than 700 Chesapeake Bay enthusiasts turned out in 1983 to watch the governors of three states, the mayor of Washington and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency sign this solemn commitment to restore the bay.
Despite this pledge and 25 years of efforts under the voluntary-collaborative Chesapeake Bay Program, the bay is in dismal shape. In many ways, it is worse off today than when the multistate restoration effort began. Recently, the federal government declared the blue crab fishery a disaster and allocated $20 million to the states. This disaster declaration could equally apply to the bay’s oysters, shad, eels, soft clams and sturgeon.
We have so poisoned our waters that reports abound of serious infections in people who have come in contact with bay water. Fish kills are common, rockfish are contaminated with mercury, catfish have been found to have cancerous lesions, male bass from the Potomac are turning up with female egg sacs, and swimmers are advised to avoid the bay and its tributaries after heavy rains.
There was a time when bright-eyed environmentalists tried to frighten the lethargic public into action with doomsday scenarios, but the fact is that “scenario” is no longer applicable; the nightmare has become reality for the bay. It is important to remember that the bay did not naturally reach its polluted state — political decisions stole the soul of the Chesapeake.
In 1987, the states in the bay watershed and the federal government solemnly committed to reduce two key pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, 40 percent by 2000. When these goals were not met and there were no consequences for the states apart from a dying bay, the governors and the EPA in 2000 set definitive new goals to be met 10 years later. It is now clear that the restoration effort is nowhere near meeting these goals. Our elected leaders warn us that at the current rate of implementation, the goals will not be achieved until after 2050, and by then the Chesapeake may be so ecologically stagnant that true recovery will not be feasible.
So what did the states’ “leaders” do when confronted with these failures? They reconvened this past week and agreed to postpone the actions needed to reach the goals set in 2000; the new deadline is 2025. Moreover, the 2025 goal is not for actual restoration of the Bay, it is the deadline they have given themselves for enacting the measures that might someday restore the bay. They also set modest two-year pollution reduction goals, objectives that for some states are weaker than the former goals, and once again they provided no sanctions for failing to meet the cleanup targets.
And the federal government’s response? President Obama stole a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook and issued a declaration that the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure. Now, the Obama executive order requires the EPA to review laws and regulations that might move bay restoration forward and to report back in 120 days. Mr. President, the Clean Water Act was passed 37 years ago; the EPA’s attorneys and other staffers are well aware of their statutory authority. No delay is necessary. Enforce the law.
With a new administration in charge in Washington and with progressive Democrats in charge of the key bay states, many environmentalists thought that this was the time when tough new federal and state actions would be taken to turn around the beleaguered bay restoration effort. But the states and their federal partners once again punted, avoiding the hard decisions they know are necessary. They again postponed aggressively addressing the development juggernaut with tough new statewide land-use controls. Equally important, they failed to adopt mandatory measures for farm pollution, the leading reason the bay is dying. Continuing to avoid these tough decisions dooms the Chesapeake to a death of a thousand cuts.
Our bay “leaders” have gone from postponing definitive goals set for a distant time when they are out of office with even more distant goals when many of us will be dead. They fully understand the problems the bay faces and the major initiatives that are necessary to restore this once great ecosystem. No more studies, no more promises, no more delays — it is time to enforce the Clean Water Act and take the bold, necessary steps to clean up the bay.
Gerald W. Winegrad is a former Maryland state senator and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment. He teaches a course on bay restoration at the University of Maryland Graduate School of Public Policy. Howard Ernst is the author of “Chesapeake Bay Blues” and is the final stages of a second bay book. He is an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official positions of their employers.
(Revised June 2009)