By State Senator Roy P. Dyson (D-29th)
After more than 25 years and $6 billion the multi-state and federal Bay cleanup effort shows more promise than progress. While there has been some progress, it's not enough. For the most part, the efforts signs agreements whose deadlines we can't meet and whose goals we fail to achieve. It's heartbreaking that we keep falling short of rescuing this "crown jewel of estuaries," the largest estuary in the nation - the Chesapeake Bay.
Recently, the President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, William Baker, declared that the condition of the Chesapeake Bay remains "a national disgrace." In its 10th annual report released April 15, the Foundation gave the Bay's health a grade of "D," giving it 28 points out of a possible 100.
The Bay is plagued by agricultural and suburban runoff pouring phosphorus and nitrogen into the water, which feed the oxygen deprived algae and create dead zones. The dead zones kill oysters and drives crabs away. There are 11,000 watermen harvesting shellfish faster than nature can replenish them. Exploding development along the watershed and a 34% increase in population since 1980 has increased the number of paved surfaces that feed polluted runoff from parking lots, highways, as well as commercial and residential buildings into a Bay rapidly losing the struggle to stay alive.
In 1983, the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed by officials of the EPA, the states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The agreement promised a coordinated effort to protect the water quality and living resources of the Bay. In 1987, another Chesapeake Bay Agreement set as its goal a 40% reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen by 2000. In 2000, that goal was not met. So, another agreement, Chesapeake 2000, again setting goals to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen by 2010 and remove the Chesapeake Bay from the EPA's "dirty waters" list.
Throughout the years, the Program relied on computer models to track cleanup progress. However, the computers showed pollution reduction that might occur in the future, not what was really happening. The model's version of the Chesapeake was healthier than the Bay actually was. In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office - GAO - found that the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program tended to portray the Bay's cleanup in an unduly positive light, saying it does not provide credible information on the Bay's current health status.
By 2007, officials at the Chesapeake Bay Program acknowledged that it was unlikely that the cleanup deadlines set for 2010 could be met.
At last count, total phosphorus had fallen 30% and nitrogen, 22%, far from the 40% reduction goal for both.
The last oyster harvest was about 470,000, 96% less than in 1983. This summer about 17% of the Bay water had lowered oxygen levels.
The last crab harvest was about 39 million pounds, about 60% less than in 1983. A few weeks ago, it was announced that the crab harvest had rebounded with 50% increased over last year. The improvement was credited to harvest restrictions that need to continue to rebuild the species. However, Bill Goldsborough, a senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that while the numbers were encouraging, the number of juvenile crabs, on which future abundance depends, is not better than last year and well below the long term average.
On the positive side, the cleanup has cut pollution from more than 150 sewage plants, reducing their output of one key pollutant by 60%. Toxic dumping has been curtailed and 12,500 acres of wetlands has been restored. And the number of Chesapeake rockfish has increased by 15 times.
In November 2008, the cleanup leaders, the Governors of Maryland and Virginia, the District of Columbia mayor and the EPA Administrator pledged to give the effort new urgency. Believing that long term goals so not work, they will start setting short term goals for the Bay cleanup and creating consequences if goals are not met. By 2011, the EPA will set a Total Maximum Daily Load of pollution for the Bay, which will bring new cuts on farms and sewage plants.
The EPA Bay program director, Jeffrey L. Lape emphasized that the cleanup did not have enough money or legal muscle for the task. Paraphrasing a July report from the EPA inspector general, Lape said, "You lack the tools, programs and authorities to get the job done." According to the EPA it is time for a change.
The big unanswered question of the cleanup is how badly does the public really want it? Of course, no one is for a polluted Bay. But there is a big difference between the concept of a clean Bay and what actual life changes we are willing to make to get a clean Bay.