Cleaning Up the Chesapeake

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

THE ROLE OF the federal government in cleaning the Chesapeake Bay is about to increase substantially, if draft reports released this month are to be believed.

Yes, we've been down this road before. Since 1983, we've heard elected officials decry the state of the bay, set deadlines to clean it up and then leave it to their successors to repeat the maddening loop of inaction. The result is a waterway literally gasping for air as overdevelopment, agricultural practices and their polluted runoff create oxygen-starved "dead zones" and kill off aquatic life.

Maybe this time will be different -- if full backing from the White House is forthcoming.

The information in these reports, written by five federal agencies that are a part of the Federal Leadership Committee created by President Obama, will serve as the foundation for a draft strategy due this fall. They urge the federal government, as the largest landowner in the watershed, to adopt smart-growth practices to control stormwater runoff from paved surfaces. But it is the push for more aggressive use of the Clean Water Act to crack the whip on states and their bay cleanup policies that is most radical.

The EPA would require the states to provide detailed plans to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments flowing into the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Insufficient action would lead to "tailored consequences," such as a loss of federal funding. But the agency also wants to initiate rulemaking under the Clean Water Act that would expand its jurisdiction over the municipal stormwater program to allow it to block development in some cases.

Does Washington belong in the business of rejecting local shopping malls and other commercial permits? Royce Hanson, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board, for one, said he isn't worried. In fact, he told us that he was "delighted" by the standards the EPA is contemplating. Mr. Hanson predicted that once completed, such regulations would most likely mirror new stormwater policies in place in Maryland and elsewhere in the watershed, which includes Virginia, four other states and the District. For jurisdictions without them, he said, the impending rules could provide the leverage needed to enact such measures. And because of staffing and other resource issues, it is expected that the EPA would end up delegating compliance enforcement to local jurisdictions.

The draft strategy is due Nov. 9, but the Federal Leadership Committee has until next May to issue the final document. That gives the EPA time to devise rules that would encourage healthy development practices with minimum federal involvement in specific local decisions.

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