With evidence suggesting the Bay states will not achieve their turn-of-the-century nutrient reduction goal, some officials are beginning to look in new directions for help.
Specifically, to the North, East and West.
Although portions of Delaware, West Virginia and New York fall within the Chesapeake's 64,000-square-mile watershed, they have never been included in the Bay Program or its nutrient reduction efforts.
Some think it may be time to ask them.
"The only effective way to manage water resources is with a whole-basin approach," said Keith Gentzler, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "To exclude major portions of the basin based on political boundaries is almost certain to create situations where priority water quality problems can not be addressed."
In fact, New York is actually downstream from some parts of northern Pennsylvania where Susquehanna tributaries flow north before turning south, back into Pennsylvania and toward the Bay.
Likewise, much of the Shenandoah River watershed - including the mouth of the river - is in West Virginia. Virginia officials in some cases must ask farmers to achieve nutrient reductions that people downstream - and out of state - do not.
The Bay states agreed in 1987 to achieve a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the Bay by the end of 2000.
Excessive amounts of the two nutrients are considered to be the most important source of pollution to the Bay, as they trigger algae blooms that block sunlight to important underwater grasses which provide food and habitat towaterfowl, crabs, fish and other Bay life. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen needed by other organisms.
In 1992, the states agreed to develop nutrient reduction "tributary strategies" for each major Bay river to guide nutrient reduction efforts. At that time, the Bay Program expressed interest in exploring cooperative relationships with other states, but the issue has been largely dormant.
"It's coming to more of a head than it ever has in the past because it is getting more real in terms that we are not going to be able to do nutrient reductions alone," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA's Bay Program Office.
In recent months, as part of a Bay Program review of nutrient reduction progress, computer models have indicated that the Bay states are likely to reach their reduction goal for phosphorus, but fall short of the nitrogen goal.
Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Becky Norton Dunlop said in a letter to EPA Region III Administrator Mike McCabe that regardless of whether the Bay states meet the 40 percent reduction goal on their own, the outlying states should be included as a matter of equity.
She said that when the state conducted meetings during the development of its Potomac-Shenandoah nutrient reduction strategy, officials were frequently asked by citizens what actions were being taken by other states in the river basin - Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.
"Of course, I can share with them the Pennsylvania and Maryland tributary strategies, but am unable to be definitive about West Virginian," she wrote. "They are pleased that the partnership includes Pennsylvania and Maryland, but perplexed that West Virginia has not been a part of this voluntary association."
Dunlop said that "now is the time to reconsider the role and relationship of West Virginia and the other basin states in the Bay restoration effort." She added that West Virginia should be invited "to become a full partner in the Bay restoration effort."
In a reply, McCabe wrote that "it is timely to explore cooperative working relationships" with the other states, and suggested that the workgroup which is evaluating progress toward meeting the 40 percent reduction goal develop options that could be considered.
Recent estimates from Bay Program computer models indicate that significant sources of nutrients do originate from beyond the borders of the Bay states. For example:
- About 19 percent of the phosphorus and 18 percent of the nitrogen entering the Bay from the Susquehanna originates in New York.
- About 13 percent of the phosphorus and 12 percent of the nitrogen entering the Bay from the Potomac originates in West Virginia.
- About 18 percent of the phosphorus and 19 percent of the nitrogen entering the Bay from Maryland's Eastern Shore originates in Delaware.
But some of those nutrients occur naturally and would not be controllable. Further, there are technological limits as to how much of the remaining nutrients could actually be controlled.
The Bay Program is estimating what realistic reductions may be possible from the distant states.
Not everyone is supportive of inviting additional states to become full partners in the Bay Program. Its limited budget of about $20 million a year from the EPA - which helps fund nutrient reductions in the states - has been declining in recent years and would be spread even thinner if more states participated.
In addition, many issues that the Bay Program deals with, such as fisheries management and habitat restoration, may be of little importance - or interest - to New York, West Virginia and Delaware.
"For New York, obviously the Bay is very, very far away," noted Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents the legislatures of the three Bay states.
Swanson said it might be better for individual Bay states to work directly with their neighbors to achieve nutrient reductions while developing and implementing their tributary strategies.
"It seems to me before we try to nurture them as full Bay Program partners we should try to nurture them through the very connections that define them as a watershed state," she said.