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Cleanup Estimate For Bay Lacking

"A lot of them, there was very little data" when the calculations were devised about 10 years ago, Simpson said. "So a lot of it was just professional opinion."

And, as it turned out, a lot of the assumptions were off target, Simpson said. He and a team of university researchers with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Program reviewed new research that documented how much good each of these practices did in the real world.

According to the bay program, they found that 18 of the 36 measures actually had less of an effect than they had been credited for.

For instance, a practice called conservation tillage, in which farmers try to plant crops with minimal disturbance of the soil, was supposed to deliver an 18 percent reduction in nitrogen pollution. But the real number was more like 8 percent, Simpson's team found.

Another tactic was using fencing and water troughs to keep livestock from drinking and standing in streams. This keeps cows from polluting bay tributaries with their waste, and it was believed to deliver a 60 percent drop in nitrogen. But Simpson's team found the number was more like 25 percent.

Fifteen assumptions were found to be accurate, and three were found to underestimate the benefit to the bay, according to the bay program.

Howard R. Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and one of the EPA bay program's fiercest critics, said he saw these mistakes as part of the same problem pointed out by the GAO.

"The bay program has evolved into a public-relations machine," Ernst said. "They've been spinning the data for so long that they've forgotten that they're spinning."

But Jeffrey L. Lape, the bay program's director, rejected that idea.

"For some people to suggest that there was a deliberate attempt to be optimistic is just wrong," Lape said. He said the figures were based on "the best science we had. . . . Better science today gives us a different picture."

Ultimately, Lape said, the bay program's success should be judged using the bay itself, not a computer simulation. For now, he said, the bay shows the cleanup effort is falling short.

"We need to do more," Lape said.

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