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Scenes of an Effort Impeded Unfold Across Chesapeake Watershed

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Despite 25 years and almost $6 billion, the government campaign to clean up the Chesapeake Bay has failed to meet its deadlines.

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A tour of the Chesapeake and its watershed shows what happened: Solutions to the pollution problems were often obvious. But governments struggled to implement them on a large scale, unable to overcome budget shortages, bureaucratic inertia and political opposition from farmers, builders, watermen and other groups.

Stream-Bank Fences

"That's a horror show."

Oranges and yellows were climbing the wooded mountains on either side of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. But Jeff Kelble, who is the Shenandoah's "riverkeeper," was looking at a something uglier: a weedy stream through a dairy pasture, with a line of black-and-white cows standing in the middle of it.

"They're just [defecating] away," Kelble said. "Where's it going to go?"

In this case, to the North River, then to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, then to the Potomac River, then to the Chesapeake. There, tiny particles of these cows' manure would feed the algae that cause dead zones.

This kind of pollution, which scientists call "direct deposition" of manure, has a simple solution, which those leading the cleanup have known about since 1983.

Fences.

Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania all pledged that their farmers would put up fences along streambanks to keep cows out. But they didn't make it a legal requirement: Officials feared this kind of regulation would be a burden on farmers and would be difficult to enforce.

Instead, governments encouraged farmers to do it and reimbursed them for some or all of the cost.

"Most people want to do what's right, and it's best to incent that," said former Virginia governor George Allen (R), who served from 1994 to 1998.

But in Virginia, many farmers simply didn't want the hassle. And reimbursement funding, which came out of state budget surpluses, was often short. From July 2006 to June 2007, Virginia turned away 144 farmers who wanted to fence off 84 miles of streambank.

Now, Virginia has reached only about 20 percent of its goal for fencing off streams. Across the Chesapeake watershed, the figure is 27 percent.


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