The Chesapeake Bay may be called a priceless resource, but cleaning it up has a definite price tag: $8.5 billion.

That estimate, from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is the cost to meet the major goals of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement for land preservation, cleaning up the Bay’s water and restoring wetlands and oysters.

The group plans to launch a campaign to generate support for a massive, 10-year program to dramatically increase Bay funding. Unless the region makes the commitment, the group warns, the Bay Program will fall short of its goal to clean up the Bay by 2010.

“We know this is the absolute minimum required,” said CBF President William Baker. “Over the last 15 years, extraordinary momentum has built through unprecedented cooperation between jurisdictions. If we fail to take advantage now, we will see the Bay deteriorate as the surge of population growth overwhelms the controls now in place.”

Chuck Fox, the former EPA assistant administrator for water in the Clinton administration, developed the cost estimate for CBF and is heading its effort to build political support for the program among federal, state and local officials, as well as with wastewater treatment plant operators, other conservation groups and farmers.

“History shows you won’t be able to get the kind of money we need unless you really have everyone together,” Fox said.

Already, state officials have offered general support for the concept. And some groups often at odds with the CBF have expressed their backing as well. Paul Calamita, of the Virginia and Maryland Associations of Municipal Wastewater Agencies, said his organization was “pleased” to work with the CBF on the issue. “In particular,” he said, “we hope this effort will yield a broader partnership with the federal government as we continue to implement the 2000 Chesapeake Bay Agreement.”

The $8.5 billion price reflects the cost of key elements of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement: preserving 20 percent of the watershed as open space ($2 billion); cleaning up the Bay so it can be removed from the EPA’s list of impaired waters ($6 billion); and restoring 25,000 acres of wetlands and achieving a tenfold oyster increase ($500 million). All of the goals are to be met by 2010.

The cost could grow. The CBF estimate does not, for example, include costs for implementing education commitments of the agreement, but they could be included in the future.

The agreement was signed last summer by the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures. No cost estimate was made for the agreement at that time.

The most expensive element, by far, is the nutrient reduction effort needed to clean up the Bay. The cost estimate was based on information from the Bay Program’s computer models, which have been making preliminary estimates of the amount of nutrient redxctions that will likely be needed to clean up the Chesapeake enough to support underwater grasses, fish and shellfish.

The CBF used an estimate for the least amount of nutrient reductions — or the minimum cleanup effort — that may be needed, and priced out the Bay Program’s assumptions of what actions would be needed to attain those reductions.

Those assumptions generally represent the maximum theoretical application of certain currently available technologies and conservation practices to determine potential levels of nutrient reductions.

For example, it assumes the maximum allowable amount of farmland in every county — 25 percent — was taken out of production through the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Further, it assumes that almost all streams would have 100-foot forest buffers.

“I don’t think that’s a realistic assumption,” Fox said. But, he added, if those actions aren’t fully implemented, other efforts would have to take their place to achieve overall reduction goals. For example, more wetland restoration might be undertaken, or efforts might be made to restore populations of water-filtering oysters.

In any event, he said, the total expense would probably be similar. “The assumptions that went into the model offer a good basis for a cost analysis, but ultimately, they are not all of the realistic policy choices that we are going to be making.”

For example, instead of using the Conservation Reserve Program primarily to pay farmers to take land out of production, he suggested that money might be used to restore strategically located wetlands that maximize nutrient removal. So while the policies may change, the overall costs would stay in the same “ballpark.”

The program suggested by the CBF would require significant spending increases. A 10-year, $850 million annual program could mean roughly a three– to fourfold increase in spending, Fox said. A potential funding split that has bee suggested might be in the range of 50 percent support from the federal government with the rest coming from state and local governments.

Such a program is not likely be presented to Congress as a single piece of Bay legislation, but rather as parts of various other bills. For example, when tax cut bills are written this year, incentives could be added to benefit landowners who restore forests and wetlands and place them under permanent easements.

A bill Congress is considering to fund water infrastructure improvements across the nation could be amended to include extra money for wastewater treatment plants that upgrade with advanced nutrient removal technology.

When the Farm Bill is updated next year, it could be designed to include expanded incentives for farmers who take actions to curb nutrients and restore wetlands or streams.

In some cases, legislation could be narrowly designed to primarily benefit the Bay, such as securing money for oyster restoration. In other cases, Bay interests might be teamed with others, such as the Gulf of Mexico, where controlling agricultural nutrients is the most important issue, or those of Long Island Sound, where wastewater treatment plants are the biggest problem.

“As this unfolds, there will probably be some alliances that we form with some of these other places,” Fox said. “The solutions are obviously going to be very similar.”

A huge investment to restore a particular ecosystem is not unprecedented. Last year, Congress approved a 10-year, $7.8 billion program for the Florida Everglades, with the federal government picking up half the cost.

But the Everglades may not be a perfect model for the Bay. Its problems, some note, were largely caused by federal programs that drained huge areas — albeit at the request of state and local governments. Nonetheless, the federal government can’t be implicated in the Bay’s woes as it can in the Everglades.

Likewise, justifying federal money for wastewater treatment plant improvements could prove difficult because New York and Connecticut are already paying for most of the costs of upgrading plants around Long Island Sound, and they are reducing nutrients to levels lower than what is currently expected around the Bay.

“Unless we can prove a pronounced commitment at the state and local level that goes beyond other regions in the nation, we will not have the competitive edge to compete for federal dollars,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, who often works with members of Congress on Bay issues.

“We must go beyond, as state governments and as local governments, and then we must package our efforts into a master plan that shows Congress that we are a partnership to support because we mean business,” she said.

So far, states are indicating support for the concept, although officials say the cost estimates need to be refined.

“We definitely support a regional, coordinated approach to obtaining additional funding to implement the Bay Agreement,” said Verna Harrison, assistant secretary for Chesapeake Bay and watershed programs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “An immense amount of time and energy was expended over two years involving literally thousands of citizens commenting on, and developing, the new Bay agreement. We owe it to them to strongly and aggressively work to obtain the funding to implement that agreement.”

Ron Hamm, Virginia’s deputy secretary of natural resources, said the state supported the CBF’s efforts to leverage funds from Congress, even though it may mean stepping up state spending to lure federal dollars. “That’s exactly what I would expect to happen,” he said, “not just free money.”

Hamm said the state had not analyzed the CBF’s estimate, and said he hoped that the numbers would turn out to be high. Nonetheless, he added, “we signed the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, so we obviously thought it was something that we not only wanted to do and were willing to do, but needs to be done.”

One Congressional aide said the CBF’s estimate was useful because many members of Congress already view the Bay as being well-funded compared with other coastal water bodies. “When you put it in the overall perspective of what the need is to address the Bay’s problem, it takes on a different dimension,” the aide said.

But the timing is difficult because the Bush administration budget indicates a desire to hold the line on environmental spending in coming years. The aide said special funding for the Bay will be a tough sell unless people view the Bay as being unique and there is strong state support.

But, Fox said, with a growing number of reports implicating excess nutrients in the degradation of coastal water quality around the nation, a case could be made for supporting Bay region efforts, because it has been addressing the complex problem longer than anyplace else.

“The Chesapeake is the nation’s largest estuary,” Fox said. “We really have developed as a model. There are some really important ecological values here.”

Although the total bill sounds huge, the CBF notes that it translates into about 15 cents per day for each person in the watershed. The question, ultimately, will be whether enough people agree that is a price they are willing to pay.

“If the Chesapeake Bay is as important to us as we say it is,” Swanson said, “then we have to find the money.”

Adding Up $8.5 Billion

These are the preliminary costs that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation calculated for meeting major Chesapeake 2000 Agreement commitments. The level of implementation for farm program implementation, forest buffers, wastewater treatment plant upgrades and stormwater programs stem from Bay Program estimates for the level of implementation needed to attain Chesapeake water quality goals.

  • $1 billion for wastewater treatment plant upgrades. This assumes the upgrading of all major wastewater treatment plants in the basin (those with flows of more than 500,000 gallons a day) to achieve “limit of technology” reductions through biological nutrient removal technology. The expectation is that nitrogen concentrations in treated effluent would be reduced to 3 milligrams per liter. Today, the expectation is that plants using BNR average 8 mg/l. Plants without any BNR have nitrogen concentrations of about 16 mg/l.
  • $2 billion to fully implement farm programs.yThis assumes a full enrollment of 800,000 acres over 10 years in the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land out of production. It also assumes Soil and Water Quality Conservation Plans are developed and implemented for all 9.5 million acres of pasture and cropland in the watershed.
  • $2 billion for forest buffers. This assumes that there are 100-foot-wide streamside forest buffers on all agricultural land except pastures, and 35-foot-wide buffers along half of all urban streams. There are about 200,000 miles of streambanks (2 miles of streambank for every mile of stream) in the watershed, and about 80,000 miles need buffers under this formula. About 14 acres of forest buffer are required for each mile of stream, so about 1 million acres of forest buffers are needed.
  • $2 billion for land conservation. The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for preserving 20 percent of the watershed as permanent open space by 2010. About 17 percent of the watershed is now protected, leaving a shortfall of about 1.1 million acres. A recent study by the Trust for Public Land and the Chesapeake Bay Commission estimated about $1.8 billion of public money was needed to meet the goal.
  • $1 billion for urban stormwater improvements. This assumes that 50 percent of roughly 1.2 million acres of older urban and suburban development without stormwater management controls would be retrofitted to control runoff. Costs estimates for retrofits range from $500 to $5,000 per acre.
  • $500 million for oyster and wetland restoration. This assumes a cost of $100 million to meet the goal of a tenfold oyster increase over 10 years. It also assumes a restoration cost of $1,000 to $2,000 per acre, plus easement or rental costs, to meet the goal of 25,000 acres of wetland restoration by 2010.