Recently, the Government Accountability Office, known as the government’s “watchdog” agency, released a review of the Chesapeake Bay Program and its effectiveness in coordinating the multistate and federal partnership set up to restore the health of the Bay. The GAO report identifies a few steps to improve the Bay Program’s effectiveness and confirms information we have collected over the past year that the Bay Program lacks the necessary coordination, accountability and focus to be truly effective.

The Chesapeake is well-loved, but struggling. In the last few years, it has seen historically large “dead zones,” which are areas of low or no oxygen. Excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment from the land and the Bay’s tributaries cause these dead zones, which are killing or hurting fish, oysters, crabs and other species.

More than 20 years ago, a public outcry over the state of the Bay led to the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership, a cooperative effort by three states, the District of Columbia, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies and institutions. More recently, that partnership renewed its pledge to restore the Bay with a specific set of criteria through 2010.

Over the past year, in meetings with representatives from all levels of government, environmental organizations, Smart Growth professionals, and policy analysts, as well as in hearings in Congress, we have asked dozens of experts what is needed to improve the ability of the Bay Program to meet 2010 restoration goals.

With 16 other representatives from the Bay watershed, I have introduced H.R. 4126, The Chesapeake Bay Restoration and Enhancement Act of 2005, which includes improvements to the Bay Program that will satisfy concerns raised during my year of research and by the GAO.

The GAO report indicated a need for executive-level support and greater federal agency coordination and accountability in the Bay Program. My bill would require the administration to identify the agencies involved in the Bay’s restoration and their roles; to prepare an annual, comprehensive budget for the Bay; to report on accomplishments and funds spent on the Bay each year; and to publish water quality “report cards” for each tributary of the Bay. It would also require federal agencies to ensure that their actions in the Bay watershed support restoration goals.

In my meetings and hearings, we were advised that local governments and local Bay restoration efforts need much more federal support, as well as more direct responsibility for the effects of local actions on Bay water quality. HR 4126 requires local governments to develop and achieve restoration goals, gives local governments a greater role in decision-making within the Bay Program, provides greater federal support for local restoration projects and requires densely populated areas to more strictly define conditions in wastewater and storm water management permits to more closely match state water quality standards or Best Management Practices.

In our research and in working with the GAO, we also discovered a lot of progress has been made by the Bay restoration partners in better understanding the complex Bay ecosystem and how human development and activities impact its health.

Quantifiable goals have been set to guide future agriculture, urban planning, land use, air quality and other policies that affect the Bay. Through the passage of HR 4126 and continuous interaction and commitment from all levels of government, local conservation groups and individual citizens, I believe we have a real shot at achieving dramatic improvements in the health of the Chesapeake Bay over the next five years.