Bay foundation faces test in face of federal cleanup effort

For weeks, environmental officials worked to determine whether cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay were "an impossible stretch." The research was halted when President Obama's new bay liaison and others objected.
For weeks, environmental officials worked to determine whether cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay were "an impossible stretch." The research was halted when President Obama's new bay liaison and others objected. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

At the podium, a political science professor was ripping into the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the well-funded granddaddy of bay area environmentalism. The Chesapeake's biggest fight in a generation is starting, he was saying. And the foundation is too timid to win it.

Which made the room a little tense. He was speaking to about 170 employees of the foundation.

"This is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it's ticking away every second. You literally have six months to get this right," said Howard R. Ernst, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

He spoke Friday at the foundation's staff retreat, held in a YMCA hall overlooking a shimmering Chesapeake inlet. "This is your summer of 1968," referring to the civil rights movement.

The struggle for the Chesapeake has always been unusually civilized, marked by searches for consensus, unraised voices and, in many cases, failure. The bay has massive problems with pollution-driven "dead zones," despite a 25-year cleanup effort by the federal government.

But this year, a federal effort to overhaul the cleanup will present a historic test for those genial traditions -- and for the bay foundation, the estuary's polite behemoth.

"This is the best hope I've seen for long-term bay improvement in the 30 years I've been working at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation," said William C. Baker, the foundation's president, who stood a few feet away as Ernst criticized his group. But, Baker said, "we run the risk of . . . snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."

In the past two weeks, it has become clear that this will be an unusually testy season around the bay.

The American Farm Bureau and the National Association of Home Builders have said that the ideas in the cleanup overhaul are too costly and will probably lead to federal meddling in farming and home building.

"The cleaning up of the Chesapeake Bay is an important and desirable thing to do. But it isn't the only important and desirable thing to do," said U.S. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who recently grilled the Environmental Protection Agency's bay czar at a hearing.

The current debate is happening because of a three-pronged attempt to overhaul the failing cleanup effort. Scientists say that the unusually ambitious proposals make the stakes higher. And if the proposals aren't derailed by politics, they say, they could change the bay's dynamics in one stroke.

Three streams of reform

One plan would use computer models for the EPA to set a pollution "diet" for the bay -- a calculation of how much manure, fertilizer and treated sewage can wash downstream before the estuary becomes chemically overstuffed. Such pollutants feed algae blooms that suck out underwater oxygen, leaving "dead zones" where fish and crabs struggle to breathe.


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