editorial -- Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Fails Again

Saturday, January 3, 2009

NO ONE INVOLVED in the 25-year effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay seems capable of uttering the word "failure." But after nearly $6 billion, two blown deadlines and the lack of a clear strategy, there is no other way to describe the dismal attempts to revive one of the world's largest estuaries.

We long have clamored for more concerted efforts to bring the 64,000-square-mile watershed back to health. And as Post writer David A. Fahrenthold reported last week, over the years the custodians of the waterway's future seemed to be more concerned with highlighting potential progress than making the tough decisions to achieve progress. The consequences of not forthrightly acknowledging the obvious are revealed in the numbers. Since 1983, the crab harvest is down 60 percent and the oyster harvest is down 96 percent. Meanwhile, 17 percent of the watershed had lowered oxygen levels.

Three factors contribute to the sorry state of the Chesapeake Bay. Agricultural runoff from farms pumps nitrogen and phosphorus into the water, which feed the oxygen-depleting algae blooms and create dead zones. These life-sapping areas have killed oysters and have sent crabs scurrying to shallower waters for food and oxygen. Watermen are scooping up shellfish faster than nature can replenish them, making harvests less plentiful with each passing year. And the explosion of development along the watershed, including a 34 percent increase in area population since 1980, has increased the number of paved surfaces that produce warm and polluted runoff from parking lots, highways, and commercial and residential buildings into an already-crippled bay.

The first blown deadline for Chesapeake restoration was in 2000. The 2010 deadline was declared dead late last year by the custodians of the bay, who include public officials from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, New York, the District and the federal government. They now have their sights set on yet-to-be-determined short-term goals.

What needs to be done is clear. Farm runoff needs to be aggressively regulated. States must institute and enforce policies to meet the maximum daily load of wastewater allowed to be pumped into the bay's tributaries -- once the Environmental Protection Agency finally issues the regulations. Watermen will have to limit their catch of crabs and oysters until those populations boom again. States and municipalities throughout the

watershed must mandate green-building techniques. The hard part is mustering the political will to turn those imperatives into reality.

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