Lawmakers from the Bay states went to the White House in May to make their case that the Chesapeake should be designated a “national treasure” that would get special treatment during the budget process.

Members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission asked that President Bush issue an executive order that would recognize the Bay as an “extraordinary ecological, cultural, economic and recreational resource” and instruct all federal agencies to aid in its restoration.

Commission members met in the President’s Conference Room with James Connaughton, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water, and Maggie Grant, special assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs.

“No one said no,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the bipartisan commission, which represents the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. “Everyone told us that this is a difficult road ahead to actually get an executive order.”

Executive orders are statements of policy that guide actions taken by federal agencies. They apply from administration to administration, unless they are specifically revoked by a president.

An executive order usually takes months to develop, officials say. The first step in determining whether an executive order is warranted would be an internal review of what legal authorities and policy efforts can be influenced through such an order.

If it went further, the development of an order would involve input from numerous agencies from the Department of Justice and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“We welcome the suggestion and we will review it,” said Dana Perino, spokeswoman for the CEQ. “The Chesapeake Bay has long been regarded as a national treasure and will continue to be receive priority attention in protection and restoration through ongoing programs and new initiatives.”

She noted that many of the administration’s policies have boosted support for Bay Program goals, such as increased funding for farm conservation programs that curb runoff, and new initiatives that will ultimately curb nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants and vehicles, which are a major source of nitrogen to the watershed.

In its presentation, commission members contended the Bay was worthy of special attention because it is the world’s largest, most productive estuary, although it has been compromised by excessive nutrient and sediment pollution to the point that 90 percent of the Bay and its tidal rivers are now considered impaired because they fail to meet water quality standards.

Swanson cited the Bay as a “world model in cooperative management” in which six states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have agreed to clean up the estuary.

But she noted that it will be an expensive job. The commission has estimated it will cost about $19 billion to meet the goals of the Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which not only calls for restoring water quality, but also improving habitats, expanding educational outreach, bringing back oyster populations and other efforts.

Historically, the federal government has contributed about 16 percent of the total cost of the Bay restoration effort. For it to maintain that level of support, it would need to spend an additional $1 billion on the Bay through 2010, according to an analysis by the commission, which was presented at the meeting.

Among the elements the commission said it would like to see in an executive order:

  • Recognize the Bay as a national treasure. Such a designation does not carry any legal authority, but recognizes the Bay as an extraordinary ecological, cultural, economic and recreation resource.
  • Acknowledge that although the EPA is the federal signatory to Chesapeake Bay agreements, the federal commitment to aid in the Bay’s restoration extends to other agencies.
  • Affirm that all of the federal agencies involved in the Bay’s restoration will work to achieve the commitments contained in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.
  • Instruct all involved federal agencies to better target and coordinate their Bay-related programs and budget initiatives among themselves, and to better coordinate their efforts with the states to help implement tributary strategies.
  • Encourage all federal agencies to pursue the financial resources necessary to fulfill the federal commitments made in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement and to develop effective, innovative ideas that reduce the costs of healthier water quality and habitat.
  • Establish an annual briefing on Bay-related actions by all involved federal agencies to the Intergovernmental Affairs Office of the White House.
  • Although federal agencies have signed agreements among themselves supporting Bay initiatives, an executive order would give those agreements a higher level of priority.

Also, much of the federal Bay-related spending comes as congressional add-ons to the budget. An executive order, officials say, could help to make those programs part of the president’s annual budget proposal, which would make ongoing funding more certain.

Last December, both Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich launched a campaign to have the Bay declared a national treasure and get increased priority from the federal government. Without stepped-up aid, the governors said, the region is unlikely to meet its 2010 cleanup goals.

Requests seeking regional priority for environmental programs are not unique. In May, Bush issued an executive order directing the EPA to lead a federal task force to improve the coordination of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes. The action did not include any additional funding.

Swanson said whether the Bay gets a special designation—and stepped-up aid —will depend on the level of support shown for the request by the region.

“They get thousands of requests for executive orders or other types of actions that provide national recognition and attention,” she said. “Whether the Chesapeake will be able to compete and rise to the kind of stature deserving of an executive order remains to be seen. It will now test our ability in the watershed to speak out on its behalf. If sufficient voices speak out from a diversified base, Then we might have a chance. If only the commission speaks out, it won’t go anywhere.”