We have come to the sad conclusion that the annual Chesapeake Executive Council meetings should probably be cancelled. For some time, they have simply been a photo op—a chance for the principals and the Bay to get a little coverage. But this year, there was so little “news” at the meeting that the Washington Post didn’t even bother to show up. Other papers ran stories buried in back pages about a proposal for turf grass, the pollution reduction from which will probably not even register on the Bay monitoring scale.

And think of poor Steve Johnson, EPA administrator, who gave a speech in which the most important single announcement he was able to make was that President Bush has increased funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program in next year’s budget by a whopping $4 million. $4 million? The Bay states have been successfully pursuing initiatives that are counted in the hundreds of millions of dollars with a cumulative total of new money in the billions. And he announces an increase of $4 million?

What is worse, if one nets out the cumulative reductions of the Bush administration’s spending on the Bay, Johnson should have been honest and announced that his president is retracting money from the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, not adding to it.

As the Bay Program tries to “reinvent itself,” the members of the Executive Council should look at their own piece of the bureaucracy and lead by example. We remember well Executive Council meetings of the past where we waited for hours for the public sessions to start because there were real and substantive discussions going on in the private meetings. Some will remember the conversations between William Donald Schaefer and Gerald Baliles, or the classic confrontation in which Carol Browner took on George Allen over toxics, and won.

Cynics will ask, “To what end?” The toxics strategy has never been implemented.

This is true, and we all bear some of the responsibility for not holding the Bay Program’s feet to the fire.

A reorganization is overdue. In 2003, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias and Sen. John Warner, recreated Mathias’ 1973 historic fact-finding tour on the Chesapeake. At that time, we called for a new institution of governance on the Chesapeake Bay—one with real authority—to replace the current structure.

The Washington Post, in a lead editorial titled “Better Bay Governance” (8/25/03) after its extensive two-part news coverage of the trip, wrote the following:

“That is the distressing conclusion of one of the most deeply involved organizations, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a report charging that the existing regional group formed 20 years ago to oversee the reduction of Bay pollutants has not done the job. ‘We have witnessed some heroic political actions to protect the Bay,’ Foundation President William C. Baker said Thursday, citing multi-state agreements on such actions as a ban on phosphate detergents, a moratorium on catching rockfish and sewage treatment plant improvements. But commitments from the governors to revive the Bay by 2010 need more teeth—a governing body with extensive power to create and enforce laws and an authority that could move quickly to require cleanup action.”

And then, in an editorial titled “Unhappy Bay Anniversary” (12/09/03) on the day of that year’s Executive Council meeting, the Washington Post wrote:

“In part, the council’s failure to achieve the goals of its founders also reflects its semiformal, voluntary nature. In an effort to call attention to the council’s failure to use tougher regulatory and legal means to force sewage treatment plants to, at the very least, clean up faster, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently filed a legal petition calling on the EPA to do precisely that, using the standards laid out in the Clean Water Act.”

So is the CBF’s call to cancel the Executive Council meetings an overreaction? Throwing the baby out with the bath water? Perhaps. But something dramatic needs to happen to breathe new life into this state/federal effort to save the Chesapeake Bay. A worldwide model for multijurisdictional cooperation may not be the model of “success” that we had all hoped.

The deadline for the highly specific Chesapeake 2000 agreement is just a few years away in 2010. Yet there is no sense of urgency to get the job done. We have the best science in the world telling us precisely what needs to be done to meet the 110 million pound nitrogen reduction goal, to pick just one deliverable. And certainly the public will has never been higher. But it might falter if people sense that there is no hope—that the Chesapeake 2000 agreement was only a paper exercise, just as previous agreements had been. Slippage on top of slippage.

Let’s get exercised. Let us hold ourselves to a much higher standard.

The Bay is showing some very modest signs of improvement. This is a system fighting for survival. We must give it half a chance. And if we do, nature will reward us, once again, with a demonstration of its extraordinary resilience.