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Just about a month ago, I wrote that $6 billion and 25 years of multi-state and federal efforts to save the Chesapeake Bay have culminated in more promises than progress. There have been goals unmet and deadlines not kept. And after all good intentions and plans, the Bay is in sad shape. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Bay remains "a national disgrace." The Bay's health rates a grade of D and 28 points out of a possible 100.
All this happens just as we are about to begin the annual "Wade-Ins" at Broomes Island and other locations in the Bay's watershed. As we celebrate Maryland's 375th birthday, we are told that the St. Mary's River, location of Maryland's first capitol, has been designated "degraded" by the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the Bay cleanup efforts have cut pollution from more than 150 sewage plants, curtailed toxic dumping to some degree and restored 12,500 acres of wetlands, crab and oyster harvests remain low and oxygen levels are lower in 17% of the Bay.
In November 2008, the Governors of Maryland and Virginia, the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator met and pledged to give the Bay cleanup new urgency. Instead of more long-term goals, they set short-term goals and established consequences for not meeting the goals. It is hoped that by setting short term, smaller pollution reduction goals, elected officials will be held more accountable for failure. For example, by 2011, nitrogen reaching the Bay will be reduced by an additional 6.9 million pounds and the volume of phosphorus will be reduced by an additional 463,948 pounds. By 2011, the EPA will set a Total Maximum Daily Load of pollution for the Bay, embodying new cuts on farm runoff and sewage plant discharge. As one who has witnessed my share of Bay cleanup goals and deadlines, I was hopeful, but skeptical.
As the Memorial Day weekend ushers in summer, thousands of people will flock to the Bay and its tributaries for boating, swimming, sunning, recreation and leisure, we are in real danger of losing the nation's largest estuary and national treasure.
When the Chesapeake Executive Council met on May 13, something new was added to the mix. President Obama signed an executive order committing the federal government to a more direct and assertive role in cleaning up the Bay. The order (Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Order) establishes a Federal Leadership Committee to oversee and coordinate all state and federal activities. Operating with the power of the Clean Water Act, the EPA will be able to make sure Obama's goals will be met.
There is nothing new about launching another batch of studies and reports from a batch of federal agencies to outline the challenges to Bay restoration. Nor is there anything new about drafting another overall strategy, which is due within six months. After public comment the final strategy will be adopted within one year. We've seen all this happen before and not much has come of it.
On the other hand, not since 1984, has a president exhibited such concern about the Chesapeake Bay. For the first time in 25 years, a president is pushing Bay restoration and is putting the full weight of the federal government behind it. I am hopeful that this time it will be different. I am hopeful that this time there will be determination and follow-through. And I am hopeful that this time, the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay will be successful.