Several ill winds blow for the Bay restoration effort.

While the summer drought of 2002 provided some water quality bounce, the wet fall and winter and the sub-optimal scale and distribution of winter cover crops will likely result in an above-average flush of agricultural nutrients that will bring down water quality indicators in 2003.

And, back in the city, fiscal deficits among the partner states require belt-tightening that might freeze or reduce budgets for the agencies doing the heavy lifting for the restoration effort.

Added to these problems, the Bush administration’s renunciation of the EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load rule has left a great deal of uncertainty for establishing the cap on nutrients flowing into the Bay and its tributaries. The nutrient cap is intimately connected to the TMDL process and it is not clear how much commitment there will be if TMDLs are no longer a threat.

With its recent draft of the Technical Support Document for the Identification of Chesapeake Bay Designated Uses and Attainability, the Bay Program has laid the groundwork for establishing a credible nutrient cap. But, without political support from the states, this effort could come to naught.

Even if the goal was merely to return the Bay to its condition in 1972, when the Clean Water Act was enacted, there needs to be significantly more nutrient pollution reduction than we have achieved to date. And, under its weakest reading, the Clean Water Act requires that the country’s waters be at least as clean as they ever have been since the act came into force.

How, in the face of diminishing public resources, can we hope to achieve these greater reductions in nutrient pollution? Where is the opportunity in this challenge?

The combination of the partner states’ fiscal problems and reduced pressure from the federal government is worrisome.

Lucky for us that we live in a democracy where the will of the people sometimes imposes itself on situations. It is quite likely that a broad majority of the people living in the drainage would like to see the Chesapeake Bay restored and protected, not degraded further. It seems further likely that political leaders will ignore that majority at their peril.

To date, incremental improvements in the Bay’s pollution burden have followed increases in public expenditure for pollution reduction, and/or stricter regulations and standards. While some contend that the low-hanging fruit — the more cost-effective practices — have been plucked in this way, a closer examination of the facts might show otherwise.

Take the case of winter cover crops. This well-studied method for retaining unused agricultural nutrients in the soil is a poster child for nutrient pollution reduction. Yet, except for a small pilot project in Virginia that does not look set to receive 2003 funding, Maryland is the only Bay state with a program to help farmers engage in this socially desirable but financially unremunerative practice. And Maryland’s program is only funded at about one third of what it could and should be.

There is no significant federal support for cover crops. And, each year, millions of pounds of nitrogen that might have been kept available for future harvests instead leach into the groundwater and on to the Bay.

Or, take the case of nutrient management. Intrusive and bothersome regulations require farmers to do things that any of them would do anyway — if they had some economic alternative to disposing of animal wastes on overenriched fields. The costs of enforcing these regulations consumes resources that might better have gone to helping farmers transport the waste to places where it would do less harm.

Clearly, not all of the low-hanging fruit have been picked. And, worse, not all of the picking has been at the lower branches.

Greater care in allocating available public resources could result in greater nutrient pollution reductions. Perhaps the combined squeeze of diminished resources and continued demand on the part of the electorate will break some of the logjams that have obstructed this care to date.

And, just maybe, policy makers will begin to more seriously consider the use of market-based mechanisms for achieving pollution reduction without larger public outlays.

The government and its agencies are seldom able to purchase things at the least possible cost. And, if the government tries to produce a good or service themselves, this usually ends up costing much more than it should. Still, there are many things that only the government can ensure, and environmental protection is probably one of them.

We must find a way to get our political leaders to use our government agencies to their best advantage. Promoting the idea of cost-efficient pollution reduction might be a good place to start.

Write to your political representatives and suggest this. Or, accept the consequences of sitting on your hands.