When I first walked into a Bay Program meeting more than two decades ago, I was sure I'd discovered the ultimate black hole of government bureaucracy. It was full of people who seemed to speak in tongues - or at least in languages that were foreign to me - about things like BMPs and POTWs.

Chuck Spooner, the director of what was then called the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Liaison Office, told me the only way to understand the place was to go to meetings, a solution that seemed akin to hitting oneself on the head with a hammer to cure a headache.

But he was right. Over time, the pieces came together in my mind and slowly began to make sense. The consensus-based decision making process of the Bay Program is often mind-numbing to observe.

Yet the state-federal partnership has served to get representatives from different states, and from different constituencies, into a common forum.

The partnership today, as I report in this issue, is at a crossroads. See "After TMDL process, Bay Program finds itself at a crossroads," on page 16.

It has certainly produced results in some cases. The plethora of programs today that promote forested stream buffers, something that helps both water quality and habitats, stem largely from the Bay Program's decision to make buffers a priority.

There have been setbacks as well, including futile efforts to deal with regional growth, and serial failures to meet nutrient reduction goals, the latter of which has resulted in the new Bay total maximum daily load, a regulatory program that has fundamentally changed the partnership.

The Bay Program suffers from the Goldilocks problem; a bit too voluntary doesn't get results, yet the highly regulatory approach of the TMDL has created a deep reservoir of ill-feelings among many states that will take time to overcome and threatens to halt or slow efforts directed toward other issues.

With the threat of consequences hanging over everyone's head if cleanup efforts fall short, it's understandable that the Bay effort for many has boiled down to counting the number of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be reduced.

Nutrient reduction is an important part of any comprehensive Bay strategy, but a restored Chesapeake is about much more than reducing nitrogen and phosphorus. It is about protecting healthy forests. It is about preserving healthy streams and improving those that are degraded. It is about making sure that fish and crabs have fallen trees and other structural elements along shorelines that provide hiding places. It is about managing invasive species. It's about preserving special places that, if only for a moment, give us a sense of what Native Americans saw on the land before John Smith showed up.

It is possible to achieve the TMDL's goals without addressing any of those issues. One of the nation's leading stream scientists once told me that we often treat the Clean Water Act as though its goal is to get distilled water in a concrete culvert.

The challenge for the Bay Program is to find a way to make sure that is not what the Bay becomes.

"I don't see how you restore the Chesapeake Bay if you don't look at more than water quality," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures. "The magic of the Bay is its living resources; it is its landscapes, and it is its people."

Something was fishy

Congratulations to reader Maureen Brunk, who correctly identified the photo behind the Bay Journal flag on page one of the April issue: a close-up of American shad scales.