The Bay states want to finish by the end of the next decade the cleanup job they started a dozen years ago.
In a draft new Bay agreement, officials from the Bay jurisdictions envision a clean Bay by the year 2010 that is filled with 10 times as many oysters, a healthier blue crab population, more grass beds and is buffered by least 25,000 additional acres of wetlands.
The agreement, expected to be finalized in June, was released for public comment at the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council meeting in December.
The Chesapeake 2000 agreement, in the works for nearly a year, is a successor to the 1987 Bay Agreement which laid the foundation for the actions of the past dozen years, including nutrient reduction efforts.
Using what has been learned since 1987, the new agreement seeks to go further on those issues while also addressing a wave of new issues facing the watershed.
For the first time, the agreement calls for setting reduction goals for sediment, instead of just nutrients. It seeks to curb the introduction of potentially harmful non-native species into the region and calls for using a multispecies approach to fish management — so actions aimed at one species don’t inadvertently harm another.
But the most controversial part is a return to a lingering issue raised in the 1987 agreement — how to handle the pressures of population growth and development.
“The fact is, if our attention to the Bay stops at or even near the water’s edge, we shall fail,” said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, the chair of the Executive Council. “If we have learned anything, it is that what happens on the land impacts the water. We cannot continue along the path of cutting down every tree and paving over every farm. We much change the way we live and the way we grow.”
But in a rare display of public discord, the Council was not able to reach consensus on whether to set a goal to curb development. The Council includes the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three states.
Maryland proposed reducing the amount of land developed 30 percent by the year 2010. Virginia officials objected on philosophical grounds, saying the state cannot impose land use mandates on local governments. In meetings prior to the Executive Council, Pennsylvania officials supported setting a 30 percent goal without a date.
At the meeting, Virginia Natural Resources Secretary John Paul Woodley — attending in place of Gov. Jim Gilmore — predicted that the Council would “reach an agreement that all parties to the partnership can endorse.” Woodley did not suggest what kind of compromise language might be acceptable.
Glendening pledged to “work with all of our partners on this.” But he added that, “quite candidly, anything that is not specific on the goal for the reduction of sprawl and the loss of agricultural land and forest land will be too soft. This is a time for some critical, hard decision-making.”
EPA Administrator Carol Browner agreed. “The Clinton-Gore administration believes that there should be a numeric criteria in there,” Browner said. “We believe that one of the reasons this program has been so successful over an extended period of time has been the willingness of the council to set really tough numeric goals. A numeric goal is going to be fundamental.”
No one knows exactly how much land is developed in the watershed each year. Estimates range from 70,000 to 90,000 acres — or 110 to 140 square miles. Put another way, that means about 0.2 percent of the 64,000-square-mile watershed is developed annually.
The rate that development sprawls across the landscape has raised concerns that it could offset other pollution reduction efforts under way in the watershed. Increased pavement, parking lots and rooftops speed the runoff of water, and any pollutants it picks up on the way, to local streams. In addition, as people drive farther, it partially offsets air quality improvements from vehicle emissions.
“We cannot continue to gobble up farms and forests and replace them with asphalt and parking lots,” said Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh, representing the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “We need a more holistic approach to healing the Chesapeake Bay.”
Besides calling for slowing the rate of development, the agreement calls on the states to work closer with local governments in managing growth and protecting resources. It calls for encouraging half of the 1,600 local governments in the watershed to adopt stream corridor protection plans by 2010.
It also calls on working with local governments and community groups to develop watershed-based plans aimed at preserving both wetlands and their surrounding lands to better protect such wetland “functions” as habitat creation or water filtering. The goal is to have plans implemented in 25 percent of the land area of each state’s portion of the watershed by 2010.
It also calls upon states to strengthen land acquisition programs, assess the Bay’s forest and farm lands to determine their role in water quality and habitat protection, and to provide technical and financial assistance to local governments to improve land use plans and ordinances, among other recommendations.
Browner, meanwhile, singled out the commitment to clean the Bay and its tidal tributaries by 2010 as a “bold goal.”
“We can do that, and that will be real progress,” she said.
The Bay was recently listed as an “impaired” waterway under the Clean Water Act, an action that could spur the creation of an enforceable, regulatory cleanup plan in 2011. The Bay agreement goal seeks to finish the cleanup before that time, not only doing the job faster than is required, but also doing it through more flexible means.
Others, though, found weaknesses in the document. In its report to the Council, the Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee said the agreement “falls short in addressing growth management and engaging the public.”
“Additional progress can only be made in the restoration and protection of the Bay if all the signatory jurisdictions establish clear policies to take control of growth rather than letting growth control their policy making,” the 25-member panel said in its report.
“And, no matter how much effort and money is expended by the signatories, if we do not educate the public to realize the impacts that their individual choices have on the Chesapeake Bay, progress toward restoration will be critically hampered.”
And, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, while encouraged by the inclusion of language to slow the rate of development, was critical of several other areas, including the lack of any clear direction on toxics reductions in the Bay.
The agreement calls for states to strive toward a “zero release” of chemical contaminants, but — like the Bay Program’s longtime goal of a toxics-free Chesapeake — has no date for achieving the goal.
“That section was pretty disappointing,” said Mike Hirshfield, CBF vice president for resource protection. “There is some unverifiable but good-sounding language about getting to zero discharge, but there is nothing that is a clear action or a clear date in that whole section.”
Likewise, he said the 25,000-acre wetland restoration goal and the failure to extend the 2,010 mile forest buffer goal were “pathetic.” Current programs are likely to achieve the buffer goal within the next couple of years, Hirshfield noted, and the wetland goal does not go far beyond the current pace of restoration. “It is basically taking what dollars we have in hand today, and then extrapolating them out,” he said. “That is not what the Bay Program is supposed to be about.”
Overall, Glendening defended the agreement as a “comprehensive list of actions” but acknowledged it could still be improved upon. “It does move us forward to solve old problems and anticipate new ones,” he said. “Is there room for improvement in this agreement? Again, I think the simple answer is yes. And we want you to tell us how to improve it even further.”
The Bay Program is taking comments on the draft agreement until March 31. The Executive Council is expected to sign a final agreement in June.
Browner, the longest serving EPA administrator in the agency’s history, encouraged public input, saying one thing she had learned in her seven years at the helm was that “when the public becomes engaged and involved in these kinds of issues, the ability of people like us to make the right decisions is so much improved than when we try to do it on our own. We cannot do this without the public.”