For the Chesapeake Bay, 2010 may well go down in history as the year everything changed. Federal agencies are promising bold new actions to restrict pollution into the Bay while also protecting the region's most valuable lands and habitats.

Bay advocates, though, hope the new year doesn't turn out to be another one that began with great promise but ends with agreements that are not enforced, promises that are watered down and platitudes that sound good but don't tackle the problems at hand.

"Everyone is for fixing the Bay, but no one is for changing the way we've gone about the status quo," said former Maryland State Sen. Gerald Winegrad, who has pushed for nearly two decades for stronger pollution controls on farmers. "The Bay is dying right in front of us, and this is our last, best hope."

The skepticism stems from bold goals set in 1987 and 2000 to restore the nation's largest estuary, yet fell far short.

The hope stems from two new initiatives the federal government is undertaking. One is the total maximum daily load, better known as a TMDL, which is being developed by the EPA this year and will set limits for how much pollution a waterway can accept from stormwater, sewage treatment plants, agricultural runoff and other sources. The other is a multi-agency response to President Barack Obama's executive order, which declared the Bay a "national treasure" and called for a strategy to restore and protect the Bay, its watershed and resources-all while providing more public accountability than in the past.

Public comment is being sought on both initiatives. Hundreds of people have turned out for meetings across the watershed; in Lancaster, the crowd for the TMDL forum was standing room only, with an audience of about 200.

"There's a lot of concern out there. Folks are wondering where the funds are coming from. Folks are wondering how they have an opportunity to provide input to all of this," said Bob Korancai, the Bay TMDL manager for the EPA. "There are also concerns whether this is going to ruin the poultry business or farming business, or conversely, how is this going to help local water quality."

For several years, Bay officials debated the need for the TMDL as they tried to work through the more voluntary approaches. But now that the TMDL is coming, Korancai said he's happy people are turning out for the meetings. Better, he says, to bring up these concerns now than in August, when the draft TMDL is done.

As the TMDL roadshow was continuing, officials began a seven-city tour to unveil the draft federal strategy developed in response to Obama's executive order in which he called for a "new era" of federal leadership.

The draft strategy outlines dozens of actions and objectives that would step up the federal role in everything from water quality improvement, to conserving land, to promoting citizen involvement. A final federal strategy is due in May.

Under the draft plan, the EPA will flex its regulatory muscle more and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will step up work with farmers in the watershed to control runoff.

The Department of Interior is planning a Treasured Landscape Initiative to ensure the protection of areas with cultural, natural or historic value, or that provide public access to the Bay. It's also considering a Chesapeake Conservation Corps to mobilize citizens in restoration efforts.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Geological Survey are developing plans to help the region adapt for climate change as part of the strategy. Other efforts will target the protection and restoration of habitats in the Bay and its watershed, and improve fisheries management.

But the "new era" doesn't come cheap.

Bay cleanup efforts have already been estimated to cost more than $15 billion, and actions to restore oyster bars and other habitats, or to protect lands from development, would likely cost billions more.

In a letter to President Obama, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley asked for an extra $365 million from the president's 2011 budget, which will be released in February, to start implementing the federal strategy.

Such an investment, they said, "would return enormous dividends to both the economy and the environment. Alternatively, without help, the Bay will continue to face stagnating or deteriorating ecological conditions, decreasing economic value and increasing restoration costs."

In Baltimore, where about 100 people showed up to comment on the strategy, the concern was whether the federal agencies would do enough to enforce the law.

"If the states don't meet the deadlines, we will lose years," Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman said at a hearing in Baltimore. "We need more specifics, and more federal heat."

Efforts lagged to control sprawl and control farm runoff, many said. Roads are allowed in areas that threaten sensitive streams; manure is spread on frozen ground, allowing most of its nutrients to leave the fields; Maryland towns are rapidly annexing land and proposing large, sprawl-like developments, even if their planners oppose them. In Pennsylvania, county conservation districts essential to work with farmers are literally going out of business because of a lack of funding.

In Charles County, MD, officials want to put in a 6-mile highway that will span the width of Mattawoman Creek, a freshwater tributary to the Potomac that is a very productive migratory fish nursery. That illustrates the challenge of Bay restoration. With 17 million people in the watershed now, and more than 30 million possible by 2030, development will go on. And there seems little that those charged with protecting the Bay can do to control it under the current regulatory configuration.

Mattawoman is "one of the best damn places we've got," longtime Bay writer and activist Tom Horton told federal officials at the hearing, "and it's clear your agencies don't feel there's much you can do to protect it."

EPA officials expected that the crowd in Salisbury would be the most contentious. The Eastern Shore city is in the middle of the Delmarva Peninsula's chicken belt, and much of the proposal centers on increased regulation and accountability for farmers. But J. Charles "Chuck" Fox, special adviser to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, said the concerns in Salisbury mirrored those everywhere else-that development was encroaching on natural resources and that the federal agencies were not being bold enough to clean up the Bay.

"From the farmers, we heard, 'please be specific about what we need to do,'" Fox said. The farmers also wanted to make sure they were getting credit for all of the voluntary measures they implemented.

Harrisburg drew the most skeptical audience. Pennsylvania generates more Bay pollution than any other state. And, residents have faced increased costs for wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

Al Bienstock, Hampden Township commissioner, called the nutrient reductions required to clean up the Bay a "tremendous burden" based on "feel-good" science.

"I suspect that all those actions that are being taken are in vain," he said. "I'm angry that the taxpayer is paying the economic burden."

George Hazard, of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, warned that the potential new federal regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations could put some of those feedlots, already strained by the economy, out of business.

"I ask the committee to take the current economic conditions into consideration," he said. "Expansion of the CAFO program is a very expensive process which is not needed in Pennsylvania."

Several people, including Mark Platts, president of the Susquehanna Gateways Heritage Area, praised the Treasured Landscapes Initiative. He said the land along the lower Susquehanna River should be considered for inclusion in any such program. "We have the equivalent of a national park in our area," he said.

Gary Blass, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, called for federal agencies to pay attention to natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation. It is an industry that is expanding rapidly in the Susquehanna watershed, and it both uses large amounts of water and generates large amounts of waste.

"It is something," Blass said, "that could change the whole tenor of things."

The same could be said for the Bay. The decisions made during 2010 may indeed set the tenor for restoration efforts for years to come.

For information about the Bay TMDL, visit www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl.

For information about the draft executive order reports, or to comment on them, visit http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/.  Comments are due Jan. 8.