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Commentary by Karen Hosler
Rotting bodies of 100,000 fish choked by a lack of oxygen stunk up Baltimore's showplace harbor over Memorial Day weekend. A mahogany-colored bloom of algae clouded much of the middle bay and its tributary creeks. In coastal bays along the Atlantic Seaboard, up to 95 percent of the underwater grasses that provide a nursery for crabs and other sea life have been wiped out. And the decades old bipartisan, multistate, political consensus to rescue the Chesapeake Bay has effectively collapsed.
Welcome to the new normal in the Land of Pleasant Living 40 years after the enactment of the landmark Clean Water Act. Despite the best of intentions, that grand crusade for clean water has widely missed its mark.
That's mostly because Congress focused primarily on the nasty stuff coming out of pipes from sewage treatment plants and factories. Left to go their merry way were the farmers and suburban communities that allow fertilizer and other waste to simply wash into the waterways, where it feeds algae and creates oxygen-starved dead zones.
"They were thinking about waste water. They didn't really get their arms around what do you do about pollution that just runs off fields," said Doug Siglin, a federal lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "And what we know now, 40 years later, we've got this enormous problem of putrefaction of dead zones, hypoxia, all over the country that is largely caused by too much fertilizer running off farmland."
And it's those nutrient-loaded dead zones that kill the fish and smother the sea grasses. How to address them is perhaps the greatest source of contention in the bay watershed political community.
So, what's to be done? In this anti-regulatory era, - many congressmen and senators are more interested in gutting the Clean Water Act than in strengthening it.
"Because even with all its deficits, even with all its inability to get its arms around what is the biggest source of pollution now, there are people who think that's too much," Siglin said. "We've gone backward."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from southwestern Virginia, is among the Clean Water Act critics. He is sponsoring a bill -already approved by the House Agriculture Committee - that would replace mandatory curbs with trading of pollution credits and voluntary conservation methods.
"Instead of overregulation and intrusion into the lives and livelihoods of those who choose to make the bay watershed their home," Goodlatte said in a statement, his bill "allows states and communities more flexibility in meeting water quality goals so that we can help restore and protect our natural resources."
Goodlatte is a favorite of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has a filed a court challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to put the bay states on a pollution diet. The EPA's limits on pollution represent a new approach to addressing the overload of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in farm runoff.
The powerful and deep-pocketed farm bureau also blocked in its tracks legislation offered in 2010 by Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin that would have affirmed the EPA's authority to institute its pollution diet.
"We've been able so far to resist any weakening of current law," Cardin said in Chestertown, Md., while campaigning for re-election over the Memorial Day weekend. But he acknowledged he is about four or five votes short of the 60 needed to strengthen Clean Water Act provisions.
But that's this year. The odds for tightening the Clean Water Act in the next Congress look far worse. Siglin predicted that Republicans - who now generally oppose regulation - would retain control of the House and pick up at least a few seats in the Senate, if not a majority. He noted the presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney currently looks like a toss-up.
"And if the Republicans end up with the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, and there's this huge political momentum to gut the Clean Water Act, it's going to be very hard to stop," Siglin said.
What a striking contrast with those proud and wildly optimistic senators who twice voted unanimously to approve the original legislation 40 years ago and then overrode President Nixon's veto.
Nixon feared grants to upgrade sewage treatment plants would cost the government too much. But Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker called the bill "far and away the most significant and promising piece of the environmental legislation ever enacted by Congress." He and his colleagues expected the nation's waters to be all but clean by 1985.
As it turned out, unless like-minded advocates suddenly rise up to go toe to toe with the farm bureau and other industries in this year's election campaigns, it looks like cleaner by half may be the best the water gets.
Karen Hosler, former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore. Distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.