EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman praised the Bay Program as a “template” for other watershed restoration programs throughout the country, and said it would likely benefit as the agency pushes watershed-oriented programs in coming years.

“I look at this program here, frankly as being a model in many ways for what we can accomplish in other areas of the country, how you approach it, how you bring people together,” Whitman said.

As EPA administrator, Whitman will serve on the Chesapeake Executive Council, the policy-making group that guides the Bay cleanup, along with the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

During her first visit to the Bay Program Aug. 7, Whitman met with its Citizen’s Advisory Committee to answer questions and offer insights into the new administration’s environmental programs that could impact the Bay.

A spate of recent reports have suggested that coastal areas around the nation are in bad shape, largely because of nutrient pollution, and Whitman said the EPA plans to shift its focus to promote watershed-based restoration efforts that deal with the problem.

“We are looking at that being one of the most significant challenges that we face in the coming years,” she said. “As you look at our watersheds, our bays, our coastal areas, we see a lot of degradation. That represents our greatest challenge.”

Earlier this year, the EPA and states in the Mississippi drainage completed a report that called for a cleanup effort costing more than $1 billion a year to curb nutrients, mainly from Midwest agricultural operations, that contribute to a huge oxygen-depleted “dead zone” in Gulf of Mexico.

“That is all watershed management, and will involve all the states in the Mississippi and will involve the agricultural community, which has to be at the table as a partner,” Whitman said. “It involves everything that you can think of, as it does here. And here we have already got a start. Good things are happening here. We’ve seen some positive results. I think you can really provide us with a template as we focus our efforts on how to move forward to try to address some of these other, and bigger, issues.”

Although the Bush administration had proposed a cut in the Bay Program budget for next year, Whitman suggested that a watershed-based program being proposed for the 2003 fiscal year could boost support for the Chesapeake and similar efforts.

“You will be seeing more focus on watersheds, more discussions of watersheds,” Whitman said. “This obviously won’t be the only watershed — we’ve got a lot of pressing needs all around the country.”

But she added, “there is an opportunity to do more here as well because you are as far down the road as anybody, if not further than most other watershed groups around the country.”

A key — and difficult — part of any watershed-based cleanup will be public education, Whitman said. “A lot of what is happening in our waterways comes from individual cultural practices,” she said. “People have to understand that it does make a difference when they change their oil how they do it; that golf course management is an important factor. All of these are contributing factors that require a better level of understanding by the average citizen, and that is probably our greatest challenge.”

She said the EPA and others need to be more creative in finding ways to get messages to the public. For example, Whitman said the EPA was developing a program that would encourage meteorologists to incorporate environmental messages when delivering weather forecasts. For instance, she said, they may encourage people not to fertilize their lawns when rain is predicted.

She urged committee members to work on similar ideas to help influence individual actions. “We need help with education,” Whitman said. “We need ideas.”

CAC members also discussed bringing Delaware, West Virginia and New York into the Bay Program. The three states contribute about a quarter of the nutrients entering the Chesapeake, but have never been asked to join the Bay Program.

But CAC members also expressed concern that the Bay Program could not afford to divide its limited money among three additional members. Whitman didn’t take a position on whether the Bay Program should add the three states, but said new partners may also bring additional resources to the cleanup effort.

In addition, she said, they would add to the Bay’s political clout in Congress, which could help with funding.

“I’m not trying to undercut our budget process, but that, as you can appreciate, does make a difference,” she said. “And, of course, every state does come with their own set of resources. So as you look at the balance of what you need, you have to go a little bit deeper perhaps and really start to weigh the pros and cons and having these three significant contributors to the pollution also come to the table as part of the solution.”