The spirit of cooperation runs deep in the Chesapeake Bay Program. Many of our most far-reaching efforts have been undertaken, not because some law has told us we have to, but because we all agree it is the right thing to do.

In part, we have been blessed that some of our toughest issues, like nutrient reductions and nonpoint source pollution, are not dealt with in very much detail by our environmental regulatory laws. In an odd way, I feel sympathy for our friends in the Great Lakes Program, who must focus on toxics cleanup and continually deal with tension between the voluntary approach and the very detailed strictures of the Clean Water Act and state laws to regulate toxic discharges. Surely, the voluntary approach can get you further with less pain, if everyone works together.

Yet it is important to recognize that many of these voluntary efforts in the Bay region are based on acceptance of an underlying environmental regulatory framework. Much of what is done voluntarily is intended to meet and go beyond the regulatory requirements or to provide a consensus that will allow the regulations to work better. Some examples come to mind.

The current effort to reach agreement on a plan for handling dredged material in the Upper Bay is important to the long-term viability of the Port of Baltimore, as well as to the environmental recovery of the Chesapeake. The Maryland Port Authority, Maryland Environmental Services and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have led this effort, and have sought cooperation and commitment from other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. All of these agencies will have roles to play in the subsequent permitting of plan projects under state and federal regularity authorities. And the voluntary effort in no way lessens those authorities; it make them work more efficiently by informing and engaging the regulators at the planning stage.

Another example can be seen in the cooperative efforts under way to manage the blue crab harvest in the Bay. After years of concern about the status of the blue crab and the economic condition of the commercial industry, the once competing interests have come together and reached consensus on the need for precautionary measures. Watermen, environmentalists, recreational crabbers, public authorities and many others have agreed to take conservation actions in both Maryland and Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Commission has led the formation of a Bi-state Blue Crab Advisory Committee to coordinate policies and information between the two states. Yet all of this is in support of the state regulatory processes, which remain the underlying authorities to deal with the issues of access, gear, harvest, season and other issues. Once again, the voluntary effort is intended to ease and rationalize the regulatory burden.

A similar phenomenon is getting under way in southern Maryland, where plans are being made to deal with the influx of thousands of new employees at the Patuxent Naval Air Station, part of the Department of Defense base closure and consolidation exercise. The facility currently accounts for half of the economic activity in St. Mary's County, and that will increase to two-thirds. But the effects of growth related to this influx will spill over into Calvert and Charles counties as well. While the state, the Tricounty Council, and the counties and localities are all working together to deal with this growth comprehensively, no one doubts that the underlying regulatory authorities of the individual jurisdictions will play a major role in determining the quality of life that results.

All of this makes it particularly difficult to understand the latest accusations coming out of northern Virginia over the issue of nitrogen removal from sewage treatment plants. Nutrients are the key remaining pollution problem for the Chesapeake and its rivers, and nitrogen is the nutrient of greatest concern to the health of the Bay itself. For years, we have known that the major point sources of nitrogen are sewage treatment plants, and the Bay Program has led the nation in developing nitrogen-removal technologies.

But instead of following the lead of others and reaching a cooperative solution, the northern Virginia operators, lead by Fairfax County, have decided to question the underlying goals of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, insist on funding for the upgrades as a condition to participate, and object to any use of underlying regulatory authority to achieve the goals. They have even accused the EPA of "trying to turn the Chesapeake Bay Program into a regulatory effort" for suggesting that the Clean Water Act should be complied with in the Chesapeake Basin.

Fairfax claims that the underlying issue is equity, and points out that Maryland is covering half the cost of upgrades for its localities and that the District of Columbia gets federal grants for its efforts. While this is true, the equities are more complex. Suppose Virginia followed the Maryland approach and subsidized the cost. What would be the equity for the ratepayers of the nine localities elsewhere in Virginia who have already installed nitrogen removal? Should their state taxes now flow to Fairfax to do the same? Or what about the equity for the taxpayers in the less affluent parts of the state? Should they subsidize Fairfax County to save the Chesapeake? There are no pat answers here. It is an issue of state policy which will probably go to the General Assembly for resolution.

Yet the role of regulation here need be no different than it is with dredging or crabs or managing growth in Southern Maryland. What is at work there and missing here is a spirit of cooperation, a sense that everyone is doing his or her share and that the requirements of the existing regulatory laws can and should be accommodated, and indeed exceeded, for the overall greater good. Overall, we have learned it is a better way to do business.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that what is going on in Northern Virginia had a familiar ring. I thought back to the many years of effort under the Clean Water Act. There too, nearly everyone got to work in their localities, sought the funding, designed the solutions and got the results in the form of cleaner streams and rivers and bays. It was a massive effort undertaken by all in response to a law, but far exceeding it in commitments and achievements.

Except for one or two. Boston and San Diego became the bi-coastal pariahs of the Clean Water Act. For decades, they fought off requirements that clearly were required, they used their considerable political clout (remember Tip?) to avoid the law, and they argued all the time that it was for the benefit of their ratepayers that they were not going to comply.

Today, the average family in Boston pays $1,400 in sewer and water fees - that's not a typo, that's one thousand four hundred dollars per family per year. And it's going to reach $2,000 by the end of the decade. All this because the cost to catch up far exceeds what it would have cost to have invested in what everyone knew all along was needed to clean up Boston Harbor. As for San Diego, they are still tied up in lawsuits and now facing the new awareness of how foolish it is to dump effluent in the ocean in a desert climate. So the saving from resisting all those years now goes along with much more money into the extra cost of land disposal.

There is a lesson here. We don't need a "Pariah of the Chesapeake."