ANYONE LOOKING for evidence of skullduggery in the recent Government Accountability Office report on the Chesapeake Bay Program will be disappointed. Newspapers across the region quoted the report's most damning conclusions -- that the program's annual State of the Chesapeake Bay report does not "provide credible information on the bay's current health status" and that the program's reports are confusing. But this isn't the first time that outsiders have complained about the bay program -- a consortium of the Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and Pennsylvania governments, plus the Environmental Protection Agency -- and it isn't the most damning complaint. As recently as last week, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation also noted that the bay, despite $6 billion in spending over the past decade, continues to deteriorate and that a lack of financial and political commitment from all parties involved has hampered progress.
But have we learned anything new from these reports? The GAO points out that the Chesapeake Bay Program has come up with more than 100 ways to measure pollution in the bay, but the GAO complains that the lack of an "integrated" measurement makes it hard for the public, and the politicians, to understand the seriousness of the problem. Well, yes -- but the size of the bay and its vast watershed, which make pollution measurement and control so difficult, have hampered the cleanup of the bay from the beginning. It isn't clear that integrated measurements would solve the problem.
There have been several moves to help the bay in recent years, most notably the "flush tax" pushed by Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to fund sewage treatment plants. This week, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced plans to spend $150 million to upgrade water treatment plans, too. But the most intractable source of pollution is agricultural and urban runoff throughout the watershed, which stretches as far as New York. Every time it rains, the water that falls on dirty streets and fertilized lawns in Washington, Baltimore and every other city, town and suburb in the region flows into gutters and eventually into streams that enter the Chesapeake. Water from agricultural land, from Maryland poultry farms to Pennsylvania dairy farms, also runs into the system, carrying nutrients from agricultural fertilizer and animal waste into the bay.
Addressing these deeper sources of pollution requires a level of creativity not seen in approaches to the cleanup of the bay. The federal government might, for example, consider using the farm subsidy program (since it has one anyway) to encourage farmers not to use fertilizer containing phosphorus, one of the most dangerous pollutants of the bay. Local governments might pass laws protecting wetlands near cities that can absorb runoff. This is not just a question of getting the language of the reports right or even of having enough money. It is a question of greater commitment at both the federal and state levels, up to and including mandatory controls, and of giving higher priority to the issue. Twenty years after its founding, the Chesapeake Bay Program, and the bay itself, still need more political clout and more political support.