Why haven’t we cleaned up the bay?

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY WIL­LIAM D. RUCK­ELSHAUS The writer, a for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, is co-chair of the Joint Ocean Com­mit­tee.

On Jan. 25, 1984, some six weeks af­ter the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Agree­ment was signed, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan drew a stand­ing ova­tion in his State of the Union ad­dress with these two sen­tences: “Though this is a time of bud­get con­straints, I have re­quested for EPA one of the largest per­cent­age bud­get in­creases of any agency. We will be­gin the long, nec­es­sary ef­fort to clean up a pro­duc­tive recre­ational area and a spe­cial na­tional re­source: the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.”

I was the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor at the time, and more than 30 years later, we are still work­ing to achieve that goal. The bay pro­gram has evolved into a ma­jor multi-ju­ris­dic­tional part­ner­ship that es­tab­lished goals and dead­lines and mile­stones. Still, the health of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay (and all of the rivers and streams that feed it) is far from where it should be.

Cer­tainly, there has been progress. Since the agree­ment was signed, the pop­u­la­tion in the bay area and the wa­ter­sheds feed­ing it has grown from 12 mil­lion to al­most 18 mil­lion. The ef­fect of that in­crease has been largely con­trolled. The bay and the rivers have not de­te­ri­o­rated much, but they have not been re­stored. It’s fair to ask whywe haven’t achieved this goal. Con­trol­ling some of the pol­lu­tion com­ing into the bay is hard. Ma­jor sources — fac­to­ries, sewage treat­ment plants, spe­cific flows into the bay — are largely con­trolled.

What’s left is nonpoint source pol­lu­tion, the largest un­con­trolled source of wa­ter pol­lu­tion in the coun­try. That’s runoff from lawns, streets and park­ing lots. It’s leach­ing from sep­tic tanks and from farms and an­i­mal-feed­ing oper­a­tions. There are tens of thou­sands of these pol­lu­tion sources through­out the wa­ter­shed. They all con­trib­ute nu­tri­ents to the bay that cause al­gae blooms, which re­sult in the loss of oxy­gen, harm­ing fish and shell­fish. We know the sources and the lo­ca­tion of pol­lu­tion— where it’s the worst and where it’s in­creas­ing or de­creas­ing.

The Clean Wa­ter Blue­print, in place since 2010, in­cludes goals each of the bay states made and to which each com­mit­ted. It lays out so­lu­tions that make the most sense for each ju­ris­dic­tion, in­cludes two-year in­cre­men­tal pol­lu­tion-re­duc­tion tar­gets and pro­vides for full trans­parency. From im­proved waste­water treat­ment to agri­cul­tural prac­tices, we know what needs to be done, where it must be done, when it must be done and by whom.

Now comes the hard part: get­ting thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­als to make changes in how they man­age their farms, park­ing lots, sep­tic tanks and lawns. Re­duc­ing that pol­lu­tion will ben­e­fit all of the states’ wa­ter qual­ity, up­stream and down­stream.

But we lack public de­mand and par­tic­i­pa­tion. Look at the bit­ter con­tro­versy about the manda­tory stormwa­ter fee in Mary­land (since re­pealed, but now be­ing im­ple­mented vol­un­tar­ily).

Con­trol­ling nonpoint source pol­lu­tion will be dis­rup­tive and costly; someof that cost will be borne by peo­ple in the wa­ter shed who will en­joy wa­ter-qual­ity im­prove­ments in lo­cal streams as a re­sult. Farm­ers in the Susque­hanna wa­ter­shed, for ex­am­ple, con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to the nu­tri­ents that are af­fect­ing the bay and their own drink­ing wa­ter; the changes they need to make to con­trol runoff will yield sig­nif­i­cant wa­ter-qual­ity ben­e­fits.

The am­bi­tious blue­print sets spe­cific lim­its on the amounts of nu­tri­ents and sed­i­ments that en­ter the bay, with in­terim progress by 2017 and a 2025 fi­nal dead­line. To im­ple­ment the blue­print, all af­fected par­ties must be given a seat at the ta­ble. When that hap­pens, real progress can be made. Puget Sound is proof of that.

The EPA was cre­ated largely be­cause the public de­manded ac­tion and got it. Now, those who over­see the bay pro­gram need to en­sure that the in­terim dead­lines set un­der the blue­print for the bay are met. If they do, the public will sup­port them.


A satel­lite im­age of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

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