The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has called on government leaders in the Bay Region to form a new compact that would bring new enforcement, and funding, to the Chesapeake cleanup effort.
Such a compact would replace the voluntary state-federal Bay Program which has overseen cleanup activities for the past two decades.
“We’ve got a structure that keeps setting goals and doesn’t meet them,” said CBF President Will Baker. “We’re calling for some discussion—and hopefully some decision making—on a structure that has some accountability to the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.”
Not only did the Bay Program never meet its original nutrient reduction goals set in 1987, it is already behind schedule for meeting the goals set in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which called for cleaning up the Bay by 2010.
The group’s call for a new governance structure came as it released an updated version of “Turning the Tide,” which describes the status of the Bay, issue by issue. While some things have improved since the original book was published in 1991— the loss of wetlands appears to have been halted, and streamside forest buffers are increasing—the book concluded there had been “all too little change.”
“The essential message of this book, the bottom line, is that we not only haven’t made enough progress toward the Bay’s restoration, but we aren’t on track to restore it in the next decade or two no matter how many times we state that is our goal,” said Baltimore Sun columnist Tom Horton, who wrote the original and updated version of the book.
“Making the next decade one of real progress toward Chesapeake Bay restoration must be the highest environmental priority we have in this region,” he said.
The Bay Program was formed in 1983 as a voluntary partnership between the states and federal government to restore the health of the Chesapeake. Despite its mission, many key indicators, such as oxygen levels in the water, have shown little improvement. Efforts to control nitrogen, a key pollutant that fouls the water, has lagged.
The Bay Program has set many goals to improve water quality over the years, but has no authority to enforce them.
Although the Bay Program is considered a voluntary initiative, Horton argues in the book that its most significant successes have stemmed from regulatory actions taken by the states.
A ban on phosphate detergents was responsible for the bulk of the region’s reductions in phosphorus pollution, a ban on striped bass fishing helped that species rebound. Regulations helped stem wetland losses, and a ban on Canada geese hunting helped that species rebound from record low levels.
“This is not to say that all the rules and regulations, bans and moratoriums conceivable could restore the Bay without the cooperation of millions of citizens,” Horton wrote. “But cooperation often works best when backed by good laws.”
Baker suggested a new compact should have regulatory and funding authority for water quality initiatives within the entire watershed—including the portions in Delaware, New York and West Virginia. Such a compact, possibly patterned after several multistate river commissions across the country, would need to be approved by Congress, he said.
But other management structures, which have more accountability, may do the job, he said. “What we would like to see is a commitment to achieve that, and a structured investigation into what is the best way to do it.”
Baker said the Executive Council should begin exploring new governance systems that have binding authority over cleanup issues when it meets this fall. The Executive Council is the top policy-making body for the Bay cleanup, and includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the EPA administrator; the District of Columbia mayor; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, representing state legislatures.
Bay Program officials have said they may put the issue of governance on the agenda of a top level Bay policy committee that is planning the next Executive Council meeting.
Rebecca Hanmer, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office, said it was unclear that a river commission-style compact for the watershed would improve management.
”Anything that increases the effectiveness of Bay restoration is a good thing,” she said. But Hanmer added that most multistate compacts defer water quality authority to the states, “What I wonder is whether an effort to set up a compact commission would add to the effectiveness of our efforts, or divert attention.”
The CBF was not the only group to recently suggest that Bay oversight needed more authority. The National Academy of Science, in an August report about nonnative oysters in the Chesapeake, suggested the Bay Program should have regulatory power in order to regulate the introduction of nonnative species.