What Would It Take to Clean Up The Bay by 2010?

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

To deliver on the pledge to save the Chesapeake Bay in three short years, you could start by digging up a million lawns to fix septic tanks that pollute too much.

Then ask 80,000 farmers to make expensive changes in the way their farms work. Overhaul hundreds of sewage plants, each project with a price tag that could run into the millions.

And find about $28 billion -- enough for six aircraft carriers -- to pay for it all. Right now, authorities are at least $14 billion short.

This month, the Environmental Protection Agency said efforts to restore the bay's health need to be accelerated to meet a 2010 deadline. It turns out that "accelerated" might be understating it: Experts say meeting the goal would require widespread sacrifices from individuals and unprecedented funding from government sources. And even then, it might not be enough.

For now, no such shock-therapy campaign has been proposed. But environmentalists say the bay project's many shortfalls are a lesson: After 19 years, the Chesapeake cleanup is struggling to produce results on par with its promises.

"We have done a truly tremendous job of defining the problem, and we have done a truly tremendous job of defining the solution," said J. Charles Fox, a former head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "But we have not yet succeeded in actually implementing the solution."

The bay cleanup, in its current form, began in 1987 with an agreement between state and federal governments. They promised that the bay, troubled by dirt, algae blooms and toxic chemicals, would be clean by 2000.

"We thought it was going to be Bethlehem Steel. We thought we were going to be able to point to big polluters," said Jack Greer, an official at the Sea Grant program at the University of Maryland.

Instead, they found that some of the bay's worst pollutants came from such things as manure, lawn fertilizer and human waste. Its troubles began on every street, in every sewer, at the back end of every cow.

"I remember politicians just going pale," Greer said.

When the 2000 deadline was missed, an even more sweeping agreement took its place. The leaders of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District and the EPA pledged to fix the bay's water, its oyster population, its beds of underwater grass and other environmental indicators by 2010.

There have been significant successes since then. Maryland passed a "flush tax," a surcharge on water bills to pay for cleaning up the state's sewage plants and farm fields. The bay's rockfish population has continued its remarkable comeback, which began in the 1980s. Small strips of forest, designed to filter runoff, have been planted alongside 5,000 miles of streams.

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