Saying the Bay should be designated as a “national treasure,” the governors of Maryland and Virginia vowed to lead a campaign to persuade the federal government to spend billions of dollars on the cleanup effort.

In making the announcement, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia and Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland warned that it was unlikely that the Chesapeake would be cleaned up by the 2010 deadline—if at all—without stepped-up federal funding.

“Even in good times, the dollars would not be there,” Ehrlich said. “The federal government has to play more of a dominant role if we are not going to just save this Bay, but protect and restore this Bay.”

Their Dec. 9 statements were delivered at the Executive Council meeting, which marked the 20th anniversary of the creation of the state-federal Bay Program.

The Executive Council is the top policy-making body for the Bay cleanup effort. It consists of the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the EPA administrator, and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

Warner and Ehrlich said they would work with state congressional delegations, environmental groups and others to press the federal government to provide a larger share of the billions of dollars needed.

“We need to build that new funding model,” Warner said, “or my fear is that the Virginia governor who is up here in 2010 is going to be talking about 2020 goals, rather than meeting the 2010 goals.”

The meeting was not attended by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell—no Pennsylvania governor has showed up for an Executive Council meeting since 1997—but Warner and Ehrlich said they thought he would join the campaign. District Mayor Anthony Williams was also absent, but the governors indicated he would also support the proposal.

It was a sharp departure from past meetings, where governors had touted the Bay Program as a model for the nation, if not the world. At the December meeting, the only model the governors spoke of was the Everglades restoration effort, which has attracted a federal commitment of $7.8 billion over 20 years.

“This effort will be modeled after the landmark federal-state project to save the Everglades in Florida a few years ago,” Warner said. “In that case, federal and state leaders from both parties came together in recognition that the Everglades were more than just a Florida treasure, it was truly a national treasure. We believe that the Chesapeake Bay is a similar national treasure.”

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was noncommittal when asked about whether the Bush administration would likely embrace a special designation, and greater funding, for the Bay.

By some estimates, it could cost up to $19 billion to fulfill the clean water, education, wetland restoration and other major commitments of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. Of that, more than $10 billion may be required just to achieve nutrient reductions needed to clean up the Bay. Current state and federal levels would only cover about $6 billion of the $19 billion cost, according to estimates from the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Right now, the federal government spends about $200 million a year on various farm, clean water and restoration programs related to the Chesapeake.

The notion of increased federal spending on the Bay has gained some support in Congress. In November, all six senators from the three states, along with 16 House members, signed a letter to President Bush asking him to commit $1 billion annually to the Bay cleanup effort.

But members of Congress called for increased state efforts as well, saying the states should match the federal spending level. And, in December, the entire Maryland Congressional delegation sent a letter to Ehrlich that called for a stepped-up financial commitment to help the Bay.

At the meeting, Warner acknowledged that “clearly, the states are going to have to do more.” But no major new financial commitments were made. Warner did say his budget would include $7.7 million for nutrient reduction efforts next year, but most of that is earmarked to finish paying the state share of wastewater treatment plant upgrades already under way.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker said he supported the call to designate the Bay a “national treasure” but criticized the council for not making greater financial commitments at a time it was seeking more money from Washington.

“While more federal funding is important, the need for it is not new and states’ request for it is certainly not unprecedented,” Baker said. “Right now, leadership to require actions to reduce nitrogen pollution are more important. The continued lack of leadership from our states’ elected officials calls into question their ability to meet the goal they set of a restored Chesapeake Bay by 2010.”

David Bancroft, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, said winning greater federal support for the Bay may be easier than for other areas because Washington is in Chesapeake’s watershed. “For everybody that works on Capital Hill and in the administration, this region and this watershed is their home,” Bancroft said. “One doesn’t have to travel far to see the wonders and the splendors of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

Others were skeptical, noting that problems in the Everglades were caused in part by federal water diversion projects over the year. The federal government, by contrast, did not play a major role in the decline of the Bay, which is caused primarily by excess nutrients from agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment plants and air pollution.

With growing federal budget deficits, many consider it unlikely that federal funding for the Bay will be greatly increased. Further, other regional environmental initiatives are also calling for more federal funding—lawmakers from the Great Lakes region last year proposed a $6 billion initiative to clean up those waterbodies.

“It’s nothing but an excuse for elected officials to sit on their duffs,” said Bill Matuszeski, retired director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. Matuszeski said the $10 billion estimate for nutrient reduction efforts was “substantially overstated,” and the cleanup goals could be accomplished for much less.

“Every politician is using those overstated numbers to justify not getting busy and to basically throw themselves on the mercy of the federal government,” Matuszeski said. “Somehow, we have to break the back of that thinking.”

Howard Ernst, author of “Chesapeake Bay Blues,” a recent book about the Bay cleanup effort, said “the only thing more depressing than the current state of the Bay is the current state of the Bay restoration effort.” He chided the governors for seeking increased federal funding without committing more of their own resources, noting in particular that Virginia’s spending on environmental programs was the third lowest in the nation.

“The fact is that everybody lives in a watershed, and the problems we face are not unique to this region,” Ernst said. “To commit no additional state funds to restoration and instead to rely on a bailout from the federal government is the height of irresponsibility. This is not political leadership; this is an abdication of responsibility.”