Getting tough for the bay

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry makes its final crossing of the Tred Avon River on a summer evening on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry makes its final crossing of the Tred Avon River on a summer evening on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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Saturday, October 2, 2010

AFTER DECADES OF broken promises regarding the Chesapeake Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening states in the bay's watershed: Meet pollution standards -- or else. The threat is justified and overdue. But the powers available to the EPA are blunt instruments. Everyone would be better off if the states reacted to the warning by improving their own pollution-control plans.

The EPA's threat comes as it proposes a "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake watershed -- the amount of each pollutant each jurisdiction can dump into its waterways and still keep the bay healthy. Relative to this standard, the EPA deemed the pollution-control plans of Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia -- all part of the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed -- seriously deficient. The District and Maryland both require less adjustment. None of these convinced federal regulators that they could implement their plans on target and on time -- the goal is now to have adequate pollution-control measures in place by 2025. So the agency augmented their plans with pollution-control initiatives it could mandate without local approval, including stringent permitting rules for wastewater plants, farmland and urban runoff systems.

Given that the states have a decades-long record of doing too little, it's more than fair for the EPA to get tough. Now it's in everyone's interest for the states to take their stewardship more seriously. Environmentalists shouldn't prefer expensive EPA mandates, which could erode public support for protecting waterways, any more than delinquent state governments, which will have to face the same wrath if they continue to shirk their responsibilities. Instead of a federal crackdown, states could implement more appealing measures, such as increasing green space near river banks or providing stronger incentives to farmers and homeowners to control their runoff.

A recent federal report found that the Potomac River, for years a murky disgrace, has begun to rebound -- it's healthier, more fishable and more swimmable than it has been in generations because of some tough controls on the same pollutants that dirty the bay. The improvement in the Potomac is a reminder to local jurisdictions that taking steps needed to improve the Chesapeake's health will improve the waters their residents see and use in their neighborhoods, too.

The states and the District of Columbia have until Nov. 29 to revise their plans. They should take the EPA's threats seriously and strengthen their pollution-control policies.

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