By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009
This winter, a round of bleak news about the Chesapeake Bay spurred environmental officials to begin asking a radical question: Was it finally time to lower their expectations?
For weeks, bureaucrats gathered data to determine whether goals pursued for 25 years -- which call for restoration of the bay to its former vibrant health -- were "an impossible stretch."
Then the research was killed after President Obama's new bay liaison and others objected to the effort.
"We were, in effect, diverting energy from the real challenge," said J. Charles Fox, the liaison, who was named a senior adviser to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "A number of us had some pretty serious questions about . . . yet another evaluation of whether the goal posts should be moved."
The cleanup program's questions about its own future, which have not previously been reported in the news media, reveal the depth of the problems Fox has inherited. Even after nearly $6 billion in spending, there is a dissonance between the sparkling Chesapeake local leaders have promised and the murky, oxygen-starved estuary that exists today.
This winter should have been a hopeful time for the cleanup effort, which is a partnership of governments from across the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed, led by the EPA. Political stars were aligning: The governors of Maryland and Virginia had put the bay on their agendas, and the Obama administration had pledged its support.
But then came bad news from an unusual place: an EPA computer in Annapolis.
The bay cleanup program uses complex computer models to measure the impact of various pollution-reduction moves. The old model, from 2002, had been encouraging. It said that if governments implemented all the "tributary strategies" they had planned, the bay would be clean enough to meet their long-held goals.
Then, in November, cleanup leaders got the results from a new version, which officials say relies on more recent research but is still being fine-tuned. It showed that all of the cleanup strategies would still fall well short. The amount of pollution they would still need to eliminate -- 60 million pounds of nitrogen, a key food for oxygen-depleting algae -- was equal to the load carried down in one entire large river.
Unless they could stop the Potomac from flowing into the bay, the model showed that the cleanup program had much more work to do than previously thought.
So some in the cleanup effort began to ask: Are the goals just impossible to meet?
Bill Brannon of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said that the "tributary strategies" already represented a plan to do everything feasible that the bay needed, everywhere, by everybody. "How do you do more of everything, more of everywhere, by more of everybody?" Brannon asked. It was more than a philosophical question. The EPA is working on a formal pollution "budget" for the bay, and Brannon worried that overreaching standards might result in excessively strict permits for sewage plants or factories in coming years.
"If it's not realistic to be able to achieve the standards, then you need to do something," he said.
Officials from Pennsylvania, a state with Chesapeake tributaries that gets the burden of the cleanup without the benefit of the bay itself, had similar concerns, according to memos and Pennsylvania officials.
In response, the EPA-led Chesapeake Bay Program set out to "quantify the 'do-ability' " of the bay's goals, to ask if they are "an impossible stretch or just a difficult stretch," according to memos posted on the program's Web site.
Over weeks of conference calls and data gathering, officials turned up evidence of their effort's struggles:
The program has pushed for farmers to set up fences along stream banks to prevent cows from loafing there and leaving manure -- a major source of bay pollution -- in Chesapeake tributaries. In February, such fences existed on just 11.7 percent of the farmland where they might be used in the Chesapeake watershed.
And even with all the funding they could hope for, the program estimated that this figure would rise only to 32 percent. That might be because some farmers would be unwilling to change their practices, even if the government would pay them to do it. Environmental officials also want to upgrade septic tanks so that they remove nitrogen. A contractor working for the bay program estimated that in the best-case scenario, 33 percent of landowners might comply.
The current number: zero, according to a presentation given to bay officials.
Other forecasts were more optimistic: The contractor said 99 percent of farmers might be induced to adopt better tilling practices, and 100 percent might create antipollution plans.
But they never answered the fundamental question: Is the bay cleanup bound to fail? High-level officials intervened in March, and the bay cleanup program never created the document -- called a "use attainability assessment" -- required for formally lowering some goals.
Instead, the bay program put out a draft position paper that formally repudiated the idea. "States' existing Chesapeake Bay water quality standards should remain unchanged," it said. The paper noted that the cleanup would seek to meet these goals, "even though we cannot describe at this time precisely how that may be accomplished."
"We're not there yet. We still hold great promise for bay restoration," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia secretary of natural resources. "It's way too early to be cutting back to half-speed."
The Chesapeake cleanup has been criticized in the past for focusing too heavily on theoretical issues. Earlier this decade, officials spent three years dividing the bay into 78 virtual subsections and using their models to work out exactly how clean the water needed to be in each.
At the same time, the real-world Chesapeake was languishing, and officials had to concede that they would miss a deadline for major improvements by 2010.
"The question that's before the bay program today . . . is whether or not they're going to be an environmental implementation agency or they're going to be a study-and-suggest agency," said Howard R. Ernst, political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. "And the jury's still out."