Progress in the Chesapeake Bay

Thursday, December 30, 2010; 5:39 PM

NORMALLY, WE WOULD NOT BE encouraged by a grade of D-plus for anything. But when it comes to restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, we are indeed encouraged. After years of slipped deadlines and broken promises, cleanup of the 64,000-square-mile watershed is showing faint signs of progress.

According to the 2010 State of the Bay report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the health of the bay gained three points since the last report in 2008 - to 31 out of 100. As the improving but still anemic score makes plain, the estuary is nowhere near the pristine state it enjoyed in Colonial days. But local efforts combined with vigorous federal action under the watchful eye of the White House could help get it closer.

The big news in this year's assessment is that the crab population score jumped 15 points over 2008 for a B-plus. Foundation president William C. Baker credits regulations instituted by Maryland and Virginia in 2008 to reduce the harvest of female crabs. There were also improvements in the growth of underwater grasses, water clarity and the oyster population. But the grades of D-minus, F and F, respectively, are disturbing.

The sorry state of the bay is the result of overdevelopment, atmospheric contamination from power plants and motor vehicle tailpipe emissions and agricultural runoff. And it is the result of a lack of political will to make the tough decisions to clean it up. Over the course of three decades, three deadlines for Chesapeake Bay cleanup were blown. But governmental inaction and inattention appear to be a thing of the past.

Through a May 2009 executive order, President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to step up efforts with the six states and the District in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to curb its pollution. On Wednesday, the EPA released a long-awaited pollution diet. This cap on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, known as the total maximum daily load, will vary by region and source of the pollution to achieve between 20 percent and 25 percent reductions in those pollutants.

This was based on the first phase of a three-phase watershed implementation plan that was submitted by the states and the District and that must be fully in place by 2025. The EPA doesn't expect the Chesapeake Bay to be restored to perfect health by that year. But it does expect those plans - and the threat of federal consequences for backsliding - will allow the agency to declare that the waterway meets Clean Water Act standards. Perhaps by then we'll be heralding something much better than a D-plus for this national treasure.

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