Dreams of a big Bay financial boost from the federal government have collided with budget reality. The governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia pledged at the January Chesapeake Executive Council meeting to pursue billions of dollars in federal funds for the Bay cleanup effort and pledged to lobby both the administration and Congress for the cash.

“We will be up in the halls of Congress within the next 45 days to lobby for that increased federal support,” said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, the outgoing chair of the council, at the Jan. 10 meeting.

He was echoed by the incoming chair, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who warned that “without major federal funding, there is no way we are going to meet our 2010 [cleanup] goal.”

They weren’t the only ones looking for federal money. All six senators from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, joined by a handful of house members, sent a letter to the White House last fall seeking $1 billion for the Bay in its 2006 budget.

Another group of House members sent a more modest request of $130 million, to be spread among several existing programs, to bolster Bay cleanup efforts.

But when the Bush administration released its 12.3-pound, 2006 budget proposal in February the Bay backers got—nothing.

In fact, the White House proposed cuts in many programs that directly, or indirectly, benefit the Bay.

“The bigger picture is that this budget does not reflect a concern for the Chesapeake Bay,” said Roy Hoagland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration. “Other areas got more money.” The Florida Everglades got a 21 percent increase, to $221 million.

Hoagland said Bay region leaders needed to make a more concerted pitch for the Chesapeake. “The question is, how much political capital are our elected officials willing to spend on Bay restoration?” he said. “It will take more than a letter or a visit to secure an increase in funds. It will take an investment of time and strategy.”

By late February, it was unclear whether the governors would make their case to Congress within their self-imposed 45-day deadline.

That does not mean that a major lobby effort will not take place, officials said. The 45-day promise was made to coincide with a March 1 National Governors Association meeting when all the Bay state governors would be in Washington.

But Rendell, as chair of the Executive Council, is considering a broader lobby effort that would enlist local elected officials, state lawmakers and others to make the case to Congress, said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“We are still trying to organize the schedule so it would be convenient for many local elected officials and state leaders,” he said.

A letter is also planned, to be widely distributed for signatures among large numbers of state and local officials, seeking restoration of programs cut in the president’s budget, as well as additional funding.

Bay region governors are also hoping to build alliances with governors representing other “national treasures,” such as the Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe, the Florida Everglades, the coastal Louisiana wetlands and other areas in need of restoration—and with billions of dollars in potential bills.

“Gov. Rendell is working to build a coalition,” Knaus said. “Instead of fighting for dollars, he wants to unite them to go to Congress and make them understand this is about saving the country’s national treasures. It’s not just about the Chesapeake Bay.”

This was the second year in a row when funding issues were front-and-center at the Executive Council meeting, the top policy-making body for the Bay cleanup. It includes the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the EPA administrator; the District of Columbia mayor; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

The region in 2003 adopted new cleanup goals for the Chesapeake’s water quality—which they hope to achieve by 2010—that would require steep nutrient and sediment reductions throughout the watershed. As states began writing river-specific cleanup strategies, it became evident that the total price tag to meet the goal could cost tens of billions of dollars.

In December 2003, the council appointed a Blue Ribbon Finance Panel, chaired by former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, to find ways to foot the bill. A central recommendation of the panel’s report, released last October, was to create a $15 billion fund to be overseen by a state-federal financing authority, which would make grants and low-interest loans available to local governments, farmers and others taking pollution control actions.

The panel called for 80 percent of that money, or $12 billion, to come from the federal government over a six-year period, with the rest coming from the states. The 80/20 federal-state split is the same ratio used by the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which provides a similar function, but nationwide.

But securing billions of dollars at a time of record federal budget deficits, and as the administration has proposed to slightly shrink the amount of domestic spending at Congress’s discretion, is unlikely, a number of observers say.

“If you come here and ask for $1 billion, it makes everyone’s life easy because it’s not a realistic request,” said an official with a Washington-based group familiar with the Bay request. “No one has to do anything.”

Right now, the federal government spends about $230 million a year on programs that either directly, or indirectly, assist the Chesapeake restoration. That includes conservation spending under the Farm Bill, programs run by a host of federal agencies, money from the EPA’s State Revolving Loan Fund, and other programs.

That is in the same range as federal funding for other areas, such as the Florida Everglades and the Great Lakes.

With tightened spending levels, some congressional aides say keeping that level of funding will be an accomplishment—much less securing additional money. Ann Loomis, an aide to Sen. John Warner, R-VA, told members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission in January that it as “an ongoing challenge” just to maintain funding for current programs.

Most existing funds “don’t come automatically,” added Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen Paul Sarbanes, D-MD. “There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into securing all of those appropriations.”

Looming in the background is an audit by the congressional Government Accountability Office, which is examining the effectiveness of the Bay restoration effort and the extent of progress to restore the Bay.

Some suggest that it’s unlikely any big new funding would be directed toward the Chesapeake until investigators complete their report, which is expected at the end of this year or early next year.

And not everyone agrees that more federal money is warranted.

In testimony before a congressional subcommittee last December, Howard Ernst, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of “Chesapeake Bay Blues,” a book critical of the Bay restoration effort, said the Blue Ribbon Finance Panel’s recommendations were unfair to people in other states.

Under such a program, Ernst said, residents in states that are paying more to deal with their own environmental problems would find their federal tax dollars drained to support cleaning up the distant Chesapeake Bay. “Meanwhile,” he said, “a Chesapeake Bay state like Virginia, which has relatively low per capita spending for environmental protection and a great deal to gain from a clean Chesapeake Bay, would have its years of environmental neglect rewarded through generous federal grants.”

Loomis, the aide to Warner, said that before there is major new federal money, Congress would like to see evidence that the states were stepping up their own efforts. “Congress wants to see greater funding at the state level,” she said.

Loomis noted that members of Congress had worked to exempt the states from funding matches sometimes required by federal programs. In others, Bay states have failed to collect available federal dollars because they did not provide matching funds.

The states recently have stepped up efforts to dedicate more money toward the Bay cleanup. Last year, Maryland approved a $2.50 per household “flush tax” on sewage system users and septic owners. The Virginia legislature this year appeared poised in late February to dedicate $500 million to Bay cleanup over the next decade.

And in Pennsylvania, the Rendell administration and the General Assembly were working out details on an $800 million funding program—much of which could help Bay efforts—that could go before voters during the May primary. The state last year supported a $250 million bond to help pay for wastewater treatment plant upgrades statewide.

Knaus acknowledged that seeking more federal support will be difficult. But, he noted the states won’t get anything without asking. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that all of this is really an enormous task,” he said. “But you have to start somewhere, and you have to do what you can to increase your chances, and that is what Gov. Rendell is seeking to do with this plan.”