A Revitalized Chesapeake May Be Decades Away

Pelicans summer on Spring Island in the bay, which local governments pledged to clean up by 2010.
Pelicans summer on Spring Island in the bay, which local governments pledged to clean up by 2010. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

The multibillion-dollar cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, which government officials had pledged would succeed by 2010, will likely miss that deadline by a wide margin -- and, at the current pace, might drag on for decades more, an Environmental Protection Agency official acknowledged yesterday.

Rich Batiuk, an associate director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, made that projection at a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory group that includes state officials from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

His talk was a blunt, and public, admission of something that the EPA had conceded in an agency report last year. A pledge to "save the bay," made six years ago in the so-called Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, is falling drastically short. "If we go at the current rate that we're doing, we're talking about restoring the Chesapeake decades from now, a generation or two," Batiuk said.

The news means a continued struggle for one of this area's most cherished bodies of water, one that Washingtonians turn to for seafood, sailing, recreational fishing and weekend scenery. It is also bad news for such Chesapeake tributaries as the Potomac River, where the pollution and runoff bring mud, algae blooms and dangerous chemicals on the way to the bay.

Batiuk's assessment was not news to many environmentalists, who have said for years that roads and suburbs in the watershed were growing too fast and that cleanup efforts at farms and sewage plants were moving too slowly for the deadline to be met.

Some of them said yesterday that they were heartened that the EPA was admitting the shortfall but wished the acknowledgment had come sooner.

"Duh," said Roy Hoagland, a vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, after hearing Batiuk's talk in Annapolis. "We've been arguing for at least four years that in order to reach those goals, they need to accelerate implementation [of cleanup efforts]. . . . That is not new information."

Bay cleanup has a history of broken deadlines. In 1987, local and federal officials pledged to clean up the estuary by 2000. The current agreement, written after the first one failed, was signed by the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington and the administrator of the EPA.

The officials pledged to make enormous improvements in everything from low-oxygen "dead zones" to underwater grasses to oyster populations.

In the 6 1/2 years since, Batiuk said, there have been notable successes: The northern bay has seen a huge regrowth of the grasses, which provide oxygen and shelter for aquatic life. Changes at sewage plants around the watershed have reduced their output of nitrogen and phosphorus, two pollutants linked to dead zones downstream.

But the overall picture, Batiuk said, shows a cleanup effort that is far off the pace set out in 2000. Crab populations are still below historic levels. The amount of oxygen, which fish and crabs need to live, is just 29 percent of the goal set for 2010, he said. The bay's native oysters are at just 7 percent.

Even underwater grasses, which are doing slightly better than other indicators, stand at just 42 percent of the level they're supposed to reach by 2010.

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