This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a voluntary governance structure composed of three of the six Bay watershed states, Washington, D.C., several federal agencies, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Unfortunately, there is not enough to celebrate. Simply put, the Bay’s water quality is not getting better despite two decades of world-class scientific research illuminating the root causes and outlining appropriate solutions.
This past summer was the worst year on record for the Bay’s “dead zone.” Algae blooms, some of which closed beaches because of the risks to public health; fish kills; and crab jubilees were commonplace in July and August.
And now, Hurricane Isabel has dealt a staggering punch to a system already weakened (the results of which will be revealed in the weeks and months ahead).
Bottom line, over the past 15 years, the vast majority of monitoring stations throughout the Bay show either no change or worsening conditions for several key Chesapeake water quality parameters, including dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and clarity.
The Bay Program, long-considered one of the world’s best models for multijurisdictional estuarine management, negotiated far-reaching agreements to improve water quality in 1987 and 2000, yet has fallen far short on implementation.
Without dramatic and immediate improvements in pollution control, it is virtually impossible for the Bay Program to meet the water quality goals of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.
Existing dissolved oxygen standards adopted by the states under the federal Clean Water Act are routinely exceeded, even in shallow waters. It is expected that the proposed new criteria and standards will be routinely exceeded as well.
Further, existing pollution control permits for sewage treatment plants, large animal agricultural operations, and municipal stormwater simply fail to protect the Bay’s water quality.
Both state and federal regulatory officials routinely ignore their fundamental responsibilities to issue pollution control permits that meet water quality standards.
Existing financing mechanisms are also inadequate for the implementation of the water quality goals of Chesapeake 2000. The Chesapeake Bay Commission estimates that an additional $9.3 billion beyond current funding levels will be needed to achieve Chesapeake 2000 water quality goals.
This lack of water quality progress over the past 20 years, combined with the clear understanding of future needs, suggests we must make immediate and appropriate course corrections.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes that a new compact, with a full suite of statutory, regulatory and incentive-based programs is essential if we are to restore the Bay’s water quality.
While we have our own ideas as to what specific governance option makes the most sense for the watershed, we believe that the Executive Council must first, accept the need for change and second, embrace the option that its members can rally behind.
Furthermore, we believe that, as time is of the essence, this process should begin immediately and a report to the public should be issued at the Dec. 9 meeting of the council.
Options to be considered range from a new, independent “authority” to a new, legally binding commitment for the existing Bay Program.
Models such as the Ohio River Sanitation Commission, Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission should be explored to see if they have components that could work for restoring the Chesapeake. Most important for the Bay, however, any new compact would need the authority.
- Rigorously enforce all federal and state requirements to ensure that existing environmental permits, particularly those of sewage treatment plants, municipal stormwater outfalls, large animal operations and power plants, incorporate permit limits to achieve water quality standards;
- Provide increased funding through new or existing financing and revenue-generating mechanisms directed toward achieving pollution loading reductions, particularly from agricultural and municipal sources; and,
- Hold all watershed states accountable for achieving the environmental goals established in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation takes no pleasure in presenting such a bleak assessment of the past 20 years’ water quality progress.
We are deeply appreciative of the incredible hard work and dedication of so many people in and out of government who have dedicated much of their lives to trying to save the Bay. We blame no one for the past, but rather we look to the future and ask for something better.
The Bay will be improved in our lifetimes only if current members of the Executive Council realize that fundamental changes must be put in place immediately to begin reducing pollution to the Bay and its tributaries.
It is our belief that this will require a new form of watershedwide governance.
The greatest insult will occur if business as usual continues with a message to the public to “just trust us.”