Donning black T-shirts featuring a skeletal fish, about 200 activists protested the slow progress of the Bay's restoration, as regional leaders gathered Nov. 20 to discuss the next steps in the Chesapeake cleanup.

The protesters, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which in October announced its intent to sue the EPA, chanted "Don't Delay, Save the Bay" as they gathered at Union Station in the District of Columbia.

Their T-shirts proclaimed, "the Bay is slowly dying."

Signers of the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which established the state-federal Bay Program to restore the nation's largest estuary, certainly did not think such a protest would mark the 25th anniversary of their action.

In fact, one of the its signatories, former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, has also signed onto the CBF's suit.

As this year's Chesapeake Executive Council meeting began, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley acknowledged growing frustration with the failure to meet cleanup goals.

"We hear you," he said. "We understand the frustration of the advocates, and we hope the advocates understand the frustration of your fellow citizens; some of them standing before you as elected officials."

He and other Council members pledged to accelerate progress and change the way future goals are set so that officials are held more accountable.

The Executive Council directs policies affecting the Bay's restoration. It includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the administrator of the EPA; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

The Council was formally created by the 1983 agreement, a four-paragraph document in which the EPA and the states agreed to "share the responsibility for management decisions and resources regarding the high priority issues of the Chesapeake Bay."

This year's meeting was more somber than celebratory. A quarter century after the initial pledge to clean up the Bay, water quality monitoring shows scant improvement.

Last year, Executive Council members acknowledged they would miss a pledge made in 2000 to clean up the Bay by 2010. That commitment was made after a 1987 goal to clean the Chesapeake by 2000 was missed.

But the Council chose not to set another cleanup goal. Instead, members said they would meet again within six months for that purpose.

That will provide time to re-evaluate the current goals using new, more accurate, computer models that have been developed by the Bay Program. Unfortunately, the initial modeling results suggest the region is even further away from meeting its goal than thought. (See "Latest watershed model offers more accurate view of nutrient flows to Bay".)

"If we stood up here today and said 2020 is the goal, how many of you would have any confidence-any confidence-that we would be back here in 2020 saying we met the goal?" asked Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, noting the poor record of meeting past promises.

Council members suggested that they, in effect, were left holding the bag from past politicians who set bold goals-but goals that came due long after they had left office.

"We have to change the way we think about goals," Kaine said.

Rather than relying solely on bold, distant goals, Council members said they would take a more incremental approach to cleanup efforts. Although a long-term cleanup goal will be set, Kaine said the council will also begin setting shorter, two-year milestones to keep pressure on elected officials.

"If you put the goal far enough off, folks don't wake up to it until the last few years," Kaine said.

Indeed, officials said progress has accelerated as the 2010 deadline approaches. Billions of dollars are being committed across the watershed to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, Spending has increased on programs to help farmers reduce nutrient runoff. And the region stands to get more than $400 million in additional conservation money from the 2008 Farm Bill over the next five years.

In addition to money, tougher regulations are being implemented. New stormwater permits for both the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, MD, require significant new actions to control pollution runoff from developed lands.

But Council members said those actions should have started years earlier, shortly after the goals were set.

"The two-year short-term deadlines are going to be very helpful in terms of keeping us focused and not allowing us to kind of backload all the work to the end of the decade," Kaine said.

Failure to meet the milestones is expected to carry some consequence, although it hasn't been determined what that will be. "Those are things we need to work out," O'Malley said.

In addition, Council members said they would move their meetings, which usually take place in late fall, to the spring. That is when most state agencies start developing their budget proposals for the following year. Changing the meeting date is intended to help governors mesh their budgets with Bay priorities.

"By the time we meet at the year's end, for most of us, our budget processes are well under way," Kaine said.

Further, the council endorsed establishing an independent evaluation team consisting of outside experts who would assess effectiveness of efforts undertaken by the Bay Program as a whole, as well as by individual states.

The exact makeup of the evaluation group is yet to be determined, but O'Malley said it would be a "panel of nationally renowned scientists to monitor program performance, offer programmatic advice and help hold all of the partners accountable."

The combination of short-term milestones and independent reviews, O'Malley said, will "increase the efficiency, the effectiveness, the openness, the transparency and the accountability of our restoration work."

Seeking to highlight their intent to follow up on short-term goals, Council members outlined specific efforts made on more than a dozen actions that various states or agencies had agreed to "champion" last year. For example:

  • Virginia and Maryland worked together to restore the faltering blue crab population by jointly implementing regulations this year to reduce the harvest of female crabs by 34 percent.
  • Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay Commission convened a 22-member Biofuels Advisory panel that resulted in a report and a workshop in September that outlined how the region could become a leader in "next generation" biofuels, which could help farmers and reduce pollution to the Bay.
  • The District of Columbia undertook a number of actions aimed at showing leadership in promoting "green infrastructure" for urban areas, by improving stormwater management and promoting green roofs and low-impact development techniques to reduce runoff.

Kaine and O'Malley, both Democrats, also said the states would develop a joint letter by the end of the year to the incoming Obama administration and the new Congress to seek greater support for Bay-related efforts.

"They can provide the funding that the Bush administration did not," O'Malley said.

When the Bay Program was established 25 years ago, it was a voluntary, cooperative cleanup effort. But as cleanup efforts have become more difficult than once thought, it has become increasingly regulatory.

Strict discharge limits for nitrogen and phosphorus are being incorporated into permits for wastewater treatment plants and a new federally mandated cleanup plan being drafted by the EPA, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, will largely drive future cleanup efforts.

EPA officials at the meeting said a TMDL would put more regulatory teeth into the cleanup effort. "They establish caps which have consequences," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

But Johnson disputed the premise of the CBF's suit, which focuses on the EPA.

The CBF filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue-which is required for suits against federal agencies-on Oct. 29, contending that the EPA has failed to fulfill obligations under the Clean Water Act to restore the Bay.

The environmental group contends that the EPA has failed to use its full authority under the Clean Water Act to press the Bay cleanup. It also argues that the 2010 goal was legally binding, and must be enforced by the EPA.

"We all share the frustration that is embodied in the notice of intent to sue by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation," Johnson said. But he said the EPA alone could not restore the Bay, noting that population growth and development in the watershed were in some cases offsetting cleanup efforts.

"We have our role to play, but we can't do it all," he said. "It really does take a partnership. These are enormous challenges."

CBF President Will Baker was undeterred, and said he anticipated the suit would be filed shortly after the beginning of the year "unless something happens."

In addition to the CBF, the notice was signed by the Virginia State Waterman's Association, the Maryland Watermen's Association, the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, retired Maryland Sen. Bernie Fowler, former Virginia legislator and Natural Resources Secretary Tayloe Murphy, and former Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. Hughes, Fowler, Murphy and Williams are all previous members of the Executive Council.

Baker expressed disappointment at the promises at this year's meeting, calling them "nothing new."

"Set one goal and meet it and we will cheer," Baker said. "That will be a positive sign that it's a new day."

He also questioned the need for a new independent evaluator, noting that the Congressional Governmental Accountability Office recently reviewed the Bay Program, and the EPA Office of Inspector General has issued seven reports on different aspects of the program in the last two years.

"How many independent evaluations do you need so say the same thing?" he asked.