On Dec. 9, 2003, the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council marked the historic 20th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Program. The region’s chief executives returned to George Mason University, the spot where exactly two decades earlier the program was launched as jubilant watershed residents cheered.

Those were heady times 20 years ago when the administrator of EPA and the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania demonstrated real leadership by advancing a series of specific budgetary and legislative initiatives aimed at restoring what President Reagan called a “national treasure.”

Twenty years later, there was no such jubilation from the scores of fishermen, representatives of watershed groups and concerned citizens in attendance, eager to see the Executive Council show decisive leadership.

Instead, in the face of definitive scientific evidence that the Chesapeake remains polluted, the region’s senior-most elected officials essentially postponed further action.

As someone who has attended every Executive Council meeting, I was left with a profound sense of discouragement. I could see by the faces of many in the audience—even those who work for the very principals who crafted the day—that they felt the same. Now, with time for reflection, I know why we felt such discouragement: Our leaders—the leaders of the richest nation on earth—are ignoring a clear and precise scientific consensus for restoring an internationally significant natural treasure.

Ironically, our leaders acknowledged that if bold actions are not taken soon, we would fail to meet the goals of the much-heralded Chesapeake 2000 agreement signed more than three years ago. While each offered his or her own general ideas about where to focus, none offered the type of vision and commitment that came from Govs. Charles Robb of Virginia, Harry Hughes of Maryland and Richard Thornburg of Pennsylvania, and EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus in 1983.

To their credit, the Executive Council members did call for new federal funding, an “Everglades-like” campaign to leverage billions of dollars. The members did say that Congress and the White House should put the Chesapeake “first in line” among regional environmental programs around the country.

But they did not say that they were willing to lead by example. None suggested committing substantial increases in funding through state bonds or other mechanisms.

Only Virginia’s governor, Mark Warner, spoke of a specific regulatory process to stop pollution from sewage treatment plants. They did not commit to stop pollution from large industrial-scale hog, chicken and dairy operations that continue to allow millions of pounds of polluting nitrogen to reach the Bay and its tributaries annually. Nor did they offer support for programs to assist farmers, such as planting cover crops, a tried-and-true practice which greatly reduces the inevitable “leakage” of nitrogen from agricultural fields.

If the Executive Council members made commitments such as these, they would have far more credibility in their call for more federal dollars. They could effectively lead a delegation of the region’s congressional representatives, state and local lawmakers and scientists as well as business, environmental, and community leaders to Congress and the White House to press their case for additional federal funding.

Such a demonstration of regional unity would be a powerful and compelling show of force that would be hard for President Bush and other national leaders to ignore.

Absent that, the plea for more money may well fall on deaf ears, and the Chesapeake will be in even worse shape when the 30th anniversary is “celebrated.”