Despite looming budget shortfalls at the state and federal levels, leaders of the Bay cleanup, at their annual meeting, called for stepped-up efforts to restore the Bay.

The three members of the Executive Council who attended the group’s Dec. 3 meeting were unified in their calls for new spending to help meet Bay restoration goals outlined in their Chesapeake 2000 agreement.

“I know there are some who are suggesting that in the current economic slowdown we need to scale back our efforts to protect and restore the environment,” said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. “Let me urge that we reject that notion. If we can afford to subsidize sprawl, we can certainly afford to invest in protecting the Bay.”

The Executive Council was created in 1983 as the top policy-making panel for the Bay cleanup effort, 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, which represents the state legislatures.

The Council’s Chesapeake 2000 agreement has more than 100 far-reaching commitments, ranging from cleaning up the Bay and achieving a tenfold oyster increase by 2010 to improving Bay-related education and promoting local stewardship.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has estimated it would cost about $8.5 billion to meet four major commitments — nutrient reductions, oyster restoration, adding 25,000 acres of wetlands, and permanently preserving 20 percent of the watershed as open space.

Maryland recently put its cost for meeting all Chesapeake 2000 commitments at $7 billion.

Meeting those commitments would require dramatic increases in funding: Maryland estimates its own shortfall at $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania and Maryland are each facing budget shortfalls of $600 million or more, while the red ink in Virginia could be in excess of $1.2 billion.

And, facing a projected budget shortfall for the next several years, Bush administration officials have suggested that they would seek sharp cuts in environmental and other non-security spending in their 2003 budget.

But Glendening called for a sense of “urgency” in pushing for more spending on the Bay cleanup. “Tough budget times will come, and tough budget times will go, but once our land and resources are gone, they are gone forever.”

Glendening was joined in his call for stepped-up support by Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams.

Neither Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, nor Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker attended the meeting, sending substitutes instead. It was the third straight Council meeting where neither the Pennsylvania nor Virginia governor showed up. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman met privately with other Council members, but left for a meeting at the White House before the public meeting.

Glendening, Frosh and Williams not only pledged to support for the Bay in their jurisdictions, but also called for increased federal support.

They urged Congress to pass a version of the Farm Bill that would increase funding for farm-related conservation practices. They also called for action on legislation that would provide grants to wastewater treatment plants that upgrade to state-of-the-art nutrient control technologies.

“Many people will argue that we can’t afford to spend these monies on environmental initiatives at this time,” Frosh said. “But I would suggest that this is exactly the wrong time to cut back on our efforts to save the Bay. The impact of a healthy Bay spreads throughout our economy like a ripple from a pebble dropped in a pond.”

Williams agreed that some may complain about having to step up environmental funding under current circumstances, but he said the United States is a great country because of its ability to rise to such challenges.

“I would argue that now that times are tough, and now that our country and our community and region have been tested, is the precise time that we ought to step forward and advance our efforts for the environment and show that the great experiment that is this country is the right experiment.

“What if our founding fathers had said, ‘Oh yeah, taxation without representation is bad, but it’s kind of hard to fight it and we’re really busy anyway’?” he asked. “What if Rachel Carson had said, ‘Oh well, the birds aren’t here, so I’m going to the mall’?”

The Council also chose Williams to continue to serve as its chair for a second year.