The Bay states are moving toward forming a unified strategy to lure more federal funding for Chesapeake restoration efforts, something a recent estimate said could cost $8.5 billion over the next decade.

State officials have asked the Chesapeake Bay Commission to head an informal group that will try to put together proposals that could draw added support as Congress considers a variety of legislation, such as the Farm Bill and measures aimed at shoring up the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission, which represents the legislatures of the three Bay states, will head the effort. But even as the effort was launched, she — as well as congressional aides — said the states will need to agree to “bold” proposals that justify increased federal support.

“Everyone needs to understand the kind of competition for federal dollars that has emerged,” Swanson said. “Simply being a large, complex estuarine cleanup program doesn’t make you special anymore.”

The action is a response to a recent estimate from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that it will take $8.5 billion over the next 10 years to meet the main Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goals of cleaning up the Bay and preserving open space.

The estimate was produced by Chuck Fox, former assistant EPA administrator for water.

His estimate concluded that it would take about $6.5 billion to achieve the huge nutrient and sediment reductions that will be needed to clean up the Bay by the agreement’s 2010 deadline, and another $2 billion to permanently preserve 20 percent of the watershed as open space.

Although those numbers are not precise, Fox told the commission at its May meeting that it was “inescapable” that the states and federal government would have to dramatically step up spending to meet the goals.

“Is this insurmountable? Frankly, I think the answer is no,” Fox said. “The reality is, if we don’t do it, I don’t think the Bay is going to be saved.”

Numerous pieces of pending federal legislation provide opportunities for the Bay region to seek additional federal support, he said. But he and others said that competition for federal funds is growing.

Commission members urged speedy consensus among Bay Program partners in proposing a fundable package.

Sen. Richard Tilghman, a longstanding commission member and chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Bay states stood to lose millions of potential federal dollars with every month of delay.

“I don’t think we have any room to procrastinate any further,” added Bernie Fowler, a citizen representative to the commission from Maryland and a former state senator.

But even as state officials have voiced support for the concept, congressional aides told the commission that the region faces major challenges in gaining substantial additional funds, especially at a time when the Bush administration is proposing cuts to existing programs.

Further, they said, the Bay cleanup effort — often touted as a national model — seems increasingly to be in disarray. Not getting clear, unified signals from the Bay states has hurt efforts by the region’s congressional delegation to “all speak with one voice,” resulting in “a lot of cracks in our armor,” said Ann Loomis, an aide to Sen. John Warner, R-VA.

Loomis said she was surprised to not get any letters of concern from Virginia officials about cuts in the proposed 2002 budget — including a $2 million reduction for the Bay Program. “I’ve not heard from my state that they are concerned about the president’s budget request for the Bay Program,” Loomis said. “Not one word.”

Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, said state, as well as local officials, needed to show more support for Bay efforts. “We need you all to work with your governors,” he said. “We need your help to work with your municipalities. Without demonstrating that kind of support, we can’t do our jobs.”

Stek said a strength of the Bay Program had been showing that kind of “leadership” in the past.

But, Stek said, he got only “lukewarm” support in discussions with stakeholders about possible legislation that would provide more money for wastewater treatment plants in the region to attain the further nitrogen reductions likely to be needed in coming years. “That kind of reception is not going to get us very far.”

Stek said 22 estuaries in the EPA’s National Estuary Program were completing their cleanup plans and would soon be seeking support for their cleanup programs as well.

That, coupled with the reality that the Chesapeake has been getting more money than other coastal areas in recent years, makes it more difficult to attract further support, he said.

Loomis said the CBF estimate was “eye opening” and helped to bolster the argument that more support was needed. But in an era of increased competition for funds, both aides said, the states must develop programs that go beyond what other regions are doing, and back them up with substantial state and local support.

Swanson, after the meeting, agreed that it was critical for the Bay states to formulate initiatives in which they show national leadership if they are to get more money.

“If we are going to go to Congress and pursue funding, then we need to find strong agreement on something that we can be a leader on,” she said. “It is going to come down to leadership and our willingness to be aggressive. You cannot take credit as a leader if you are not one.”