Warner Plans Huge Bay Commitment

"The implementation of these standards will not be cheap or easy," Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said yesterday. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

RICHMOND, Nov. 21 -- New regulations aimed at limiting pollution in the Chesapeake Bay took effect in Virginia on Monday as Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced plans for the state's second record-setting investment in water quality in as many years.

Warner said details of the new effort to finance bay cleanup will be revealed in his budget Dec. 16. But he said the amount will exceed the $150 million designated for water quality during the budget year that ended in July.

"I anticipate announcing the largest contribution ever to the water-quality improvement fund," he told an audience of environmental groups at a news conference Monday afternoon. "The implementation of these standards will not be cheap or easy."

Warner said the money will be used to help jump-start upgrades to publicly owned water treatment plants. The plants must meet federal standards by 2010.

Republican leaders in the House of Delegates said they welcomed Warner's promise of more money for the bay but scoffed at the outgoing governor's attempt to claim credit.

"This governor has not put a dime into the bay. He has been nowhere," said Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who is chairman of the House's committee on natural resources. "Now -- shoot, it's easy. You're going to have a substantial surplus."

A $500 million budget surplus announced this summer allowed Warner to increase water-quality spending to about $150 million from the $86 million approved during the 2005 legislative session. Another surplus is expected for the fiscal year that will end in July.

Cox said it was House Republicans who pushed for a 10-year, $500 million contribution to bay cleanup. That effort failed, but the legislature agreed to a first-year, $50 million down payment and added $36 million more. Cox said it was that effort that created momentum for bay money.

"We see it as a long-term commitment. It's a core function of government," Cox said. "We've been very clear that we want to see a long-term commitment."

Warner's press secretary, Kevin Hall, said it was Warner who pushed for "these new regulatory tools." And he criticized Cox for opposing tax increases in 2004 that made the bay cleanup spending possible.

"Delegate Cox can scoff if he wants," Hall said, adding: "This, from someone who fought us every step of the way as we worked to restore sanity and responsibility to our balance sheet?"

The standards, proposed by Warner in 2003 and approved Monday by the Water Control Board, set strict guidelines on levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be discharged by municipal sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities.

Donald S. Welch, the mid-Atlantic's senior official for the Environmental Protection Agency, called the regulations "a showpiece of sound science" and said they "will really give life to the plans we've been making and the goals to protect the bay."

But the news was tempered by the looming reality that restoring the massive Chesapeake Bay watershed to health will require even more political will and far greater resources than Virginia is contemplating.

Last week, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, issued its annual report. The group gave the bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100. The group says Virginia's share of the costs to clean up the bay will be at least $2.3 billion by 2010.

Ann Jennings, the Virginia director for the group, said the Chesapeake Bay is "in trouble and in declining health" because of wastewater from treatment plants as well as runoff from development across the region.

"After decades, we know what it will take to bring the bay back," she told the group Monday. "We do have more work to do."

Also Monday, Warner met in private with senior lawmakers and some of the state's top business officials to assess the economy's performance as the state enters another two-year budget cycle.

The meeting was also attended by Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine (D), whose job it will be to shepherd Warner's budget proposal through the General Assembly next month.

After the closed-door session, both men said they remain guardedly optimistic that the state's economy will continue to grow briskly through the next two years.

"I'm optimistic about Virginia vis--vis other states," Kaine said. But, he added, "we've got headaches and storm clouds on the horizon."

Kaine said the business leaders in the meeting warned of the likelihood that Virginia's housing market will cool significantly during the next year, stopping the growth of revenue that the state collects from taxes on home mortgages and refinancing.

They also said that exceptional corporate profits might not continue at the levels they have been the past two years, Kaine and Warner told reporters after the meeting.

Kaine said he plans to "lean a little bit to the conservative side. It's better to have pleasant surprises rather than unpleasant ones."

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