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Bay Cleanup Creates Local Angst – But Let’s Take Another Look

Sunrise Just as the federal-state Chesapeake Bay cleanup initiative is getting under way -– an effort that many regard as the Bay’s best and perhaps last chance for real recovery -- come disturbing reports that some localities around the Bay watershed are balking.

Local officials are variously complaining that the Bay pollution diet (the total maximum daily load, or TMDL) that limits the amount of pollution allowed in the Bay is too costly, or unfair, or scientifically unsound.

Newspapers report that officials in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are even exploring litigation to halt the pollution diet, echoing legal action already under way against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by national agriculture and home builder groups trying to torpedo the Bay cleanup.

A lawsuit by Accomack County? Home to dozens of polluted creeks on state “dirty waters” lists, including the Pocomoke and Machipongo rivers (fouled by bacteria), Onancock, Pungoteague, and Assawoman creeks (again, bacteria), and large swaths of Pocomoke Sound, Tangier Sound, and the Chesapeake Bay (oxygen deprived or fish contaminated by PCBs)?

Accomack, whose Bay-dependent communities stand the most to gain from clean water and a restored Chesapeake Bay? Whose rumored lawsuit, if successful, would allow millions of gallons of pollution to continue flowing down the Bay to threaten Eastern Shore fishing, crabbing, clamming, oystering, recreation, and tourism businesses?

Some points to keep in mind for Accomack and other localities wrestling with the Bay diet:

• Many cost estimates for implementing the Bay diet are often grossly overblown. Hampton Roads localities, for example, initially estimated implementation of the Bay diet would cost them $8 billion-$9 billion, prompting furious discussions about affordability and threatened lawsuits. But the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission’s most recent estimate is now a more realistic $1.8 billion, which would be spread over the next 15 years. The final cost is likely to be even less when additional savings from Virginia’s new fertilizer legislation and the benefits of pollution credit trading are factored in.

• Virginia’s watershed implementation plan (WIP) to make the Bay diet work puts a major emphasis on reducing pollution from agricultural land because a) that’s where a big part of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution harming rivers and the Bay is coming from; b) the other major pollution sources, local sewage treatment plants, are already well on their way to reducing their share of Bay pollution; c) it’s more cost-effective (greater bang for the buck) to reduce pollution from farm land than urban or suburban areas; and d) many federal and state programs exist to help farmers pay the tab to reduce farm runoff.

So, rural, farming-intense areas are indeed being asked by Virginia to do more to reduce pollution than the state’s urban and suburban areas. Some see that as unfair. Others see it as basic accountability.

• Implementing the Bay diet creates jobs and pumps money into local economies. Every public dollar spent to help farmers reduce farm pollution generates $1.56 in economic activity, according to a University of Virginia study. If done sufficiently to meet Bay diet standards, such spending would create nearly 12,000 jobs of a year’s duration. Every $1 spent on water and sewer infrastructure improvements increases gross domestic product by $6.35. Further, adding one water and sewer job creates 3.68 additional jobs to support it, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors study. In short, restoring the Bay is literally an investment in our economy, our future prosperity, and quality of life.

• Some contend the Bay cleanup initiative is a top-down federal mandate. While EPA did establish the pollution diet, each Bay state and locality is determining how best to achieve the necessary pollution reductions. That’s a bottom-up approach that enables citizens and local governments to decide for themselves which actions are the most practical and affordable for their local circumstances.

• National farm groups claim EPA is using “bad science” for the Bay pollution diet, but the region’s most respected scientists have validated EPA’s methods and concluded that the “bad science” claims are themselves bad science. See Monday’s Bay Daily blog for more details.

This is not to dismiss local questions and concerns about the Bay cleanup. Those need to be aired, discussed, and answered. But should we let the questions become excuses (or strategies) for inaction? Rather than focus on what’s difficult and derailing the cleanup effort, shouldn’t we focus on what’s do-able, what’s achievable, and what we can do to get the greatest pollution reductions for the least costs?

Yes, restoring the Bay is a big challenge. It always has been. But what EPA, what Bay state governments, and what individual citizens in poll after poll are saying is, it’s time to meet that challenge. How? As everyone concedes, the key to success is adequate funding. It’s time to insist that Congress and state legislatures fund the programs that support clean water -- federal loans and municipal bonds to modernize local wastewater plants and storm water systems, conservation programs that help farmers reduce runoff, and state programs that support similar efforts in Virginia and the other Bay states.

Think budget cuts can’t cripple clean water programs with ripple effects all the way down the Bay? Read this news article out of West Virginia. Take another look at this recent satellite photograph of pollution coming down rivers to the Bay. And contact your federal and state elected officials and tell them why clean water is too important to be left on the cutting room floor.

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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