The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2005 State of the Bay health index, released in November, provides yet another stark reminder that our Bay and its rivers and streams remain a system in crisis. For the third year in a row, the report scores the Bay’s health a dismal 27 out of a possible 100.

On the heels of a summer of near-record dead zones and massive fish kills on the Shenandoah (80 percent of the smallmouth bass died) and the Juniata rivers, and in the face of watershedwide fish consumption advisories—including mercury contamination warnings on nearly every tributary of the Bay—the score is grim but not surprising.

To date, the states have taken only modest steps toward lasting improvement in the Bay’s health. Instead of stepping forward boldly at the regional and federal level to demand more funding and call for a national commitment to restoration, our elected officials have accepted current efforts as good enough—even though they know that the status quo will not lead to success.

The Bay Program’s own analysis is that we will not reach the goals set for 2010 in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement without a significant increase in effort and funding.

This year’s State of the Bay report ought to incite unprecedented action. Indeed, the upcoming legislative sessions in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia are potentially the most important to the future of the Bay and its rivers in the 30 years of effort to restore this national treasure.

The states’ own Tributary Strategies provide a clear outline of what needs to be done. Yet the Bay states have barely begun to implement the programs needed to achieve measurable pollution reduction.

While Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia and Gov. Ed Rendell or Pennsylvania have made new financial commitments to clean water, only Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland has stepped forward with a bold funding plan for long-term, systemic improvement by vastly upgrading sewage treatment. Both Maryland and Virginia have enacted new regulations to govern pollution discharges.

Yet, in all three states, there remains a real need for dramatic future funding increases.

By all accounts, the most important thing that leaders at the state and federal level can do to reduce pollution and restore the health of the Bay and its rivers and streams is address the sewage and agriculture elements of the Tributary Strategies.

Upgrading sewage treatment plants, planting riparian buffers, adopting nutrient management plans, and sowing cover crops are among the most cost-effective ways to reduce nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.

Watershedwide, farmers have shown a willingness to adopt conservation measures. In listening sessions and focus groups, in meetings and casual conversations, farmers throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are telling the CBF and our partners the same things time and time again. They recognize the importance of adopting conservation practices and are eager to do their part as stewards of the land and water.

Their ability to succeed, however, is severely limited by available funds and technical assistance, which fall far short of current demands.

On the agriculture front, the CBF recently released a report, “Vital Signs—The State of Chesapeake Agriculture in 2005,” which highlights the critical role agriculture plays in the economy, community and environment of the entire Bay region.

The report reveals the precarious future of agriculture while noting that government investment in farming in the region has been inadequate. In the face of stagnant commodity prices, steep increases in the cost of fuel and other operations costs, and sky-rocketing real estate values, farmers are feeling squeezed. Without assistance, many farmers simply cannot invest in pollution reduction strategies without sacrificing profit. Even worse, for some landowners, the pressure to sell property for development is enormous.

The good news is that this is not a problem that needs a solution. This is a solution that needs funding…and the political leadership to make it happen.

In 2006, elected officials in each of the Bay states should embrace the Tributary Strategies and commit to fully funding the sewage and agriculture parts of those plans immediately. Scientists estimate that doing so would achieve almost 80 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions necessary.

In Maryland, that means enhanced investments in cover crop programs, manure management and technical assistance.

In Pennsylvania, the passage of a suite of bills called the “Farmers First Agenda” will help farmers implement conservation practices to improve the quality of more than 4,000 miles of rivers and streams in the state, while keeping farming economically viable. Included in the agenda is support for the development of innovative technologies for alternative uses of manure, such as manure-to-energy programs.

In Virginia, the General Assembly must follow through on its commitment in 2005 to long-term funding to clean up the state’s waterways, including continued upgrades of sewage treatment plants and the reduction of polluted runoff from farms.

On the federal level, too, bold investments in pollution solutions are needed. Every five years, Congress considers a Farm Bill that updates federal farm programs. The dialogue surrounding the development of the 2007 Farm Bill has already begun.

While the past few bills have increased funding for conservation programs, funds are not distributed equitably across farms or regions. Compounding the fact that the Bay states currently do not receive a fair share of Farm Bill dollars, recent budget proposals have included deep cuts to several key Farm Bill programs.

Supporting agriculture and saving the Bay are not either/or decisions. Without healthy, thriving farms, we cannot have clean streams and rivers or a healthy Bay.

There is no question about farmers’ willingness to be partners in the solution, when economic viability and environmental protection go hand in hand.