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Will a New Bay Agreement Be Toothless…Again?

DSC_0105If you give a rip about the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll give a rip about a proposed new Chesapeake Bay Agreement, the latest Bay restoration plan now being crafted by federal and Bay state officials.

The agreement, still in development but available here for review, seeks to lay out consensus goals, outcomes, and strategies for restoring the troubled estuary and its tributaries over the next several years.

The authors of the new agreement are the partners in the Chesapeake Bay Program -- the six Bay watershed states of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia; the District of the Columbia; EPA and a host of other federal agencies; and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a state legislative group.

This, of course, is not the first time the partners have produced a Bay Agreement. The first agreement was signed in 1983, putting a national spotlight on the Chesapeake Bay and initiating what has become one of the most ambitious estuarine restoration efforts in the nation, if not the world.

Since then there have been at least two other agreements, one in 1987 and another in 2000. Past Agreements have focused on reducing pollution, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and toxic Farmers to the Bay Sept 2010 B 027chemicals that over the years have so degraded water quality and wildlife in the Bay system. But they’ve also included ambitious commitments to protect wetlands, conserve forests and open space, restore oysters, crabs, and fish, and provide environmental education to school students.

The earlier agreements were comprehensive, aspirational, even inspirational in their intent. What they lacked was accountability. They committed partners to laudable goals but did not obligate them to actually achieving those goals by a time certain or to impose consequences for failure.

So while much Bay restoration progress was made over the decades, no one was surprised in 2010 when the partnership failed to achieve a fundamental objective, the removal of the Bay from EPA’s “dirty waters” pollution list. That singular failure prompted the partners to agree to a different approach – the establishment of strict pollution limits (a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL) as required by the Clean Water Act, state-specific plans to achieve those limits, and a regimen of accountability measures to ensure steady progress.

This “Bay Blueprint” for reducing pollution is now being implemented across the Bay watershed and is already showing early signs of success. But it addresses only three specific pollutants – excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. It does not commit the states or the federal government to dealing with the myriad other issues also critical to the Bay‘s health.

Hence the current effort by the Bay Program to forge a new Bay Agreement. Bay Program partners recently held a series of “listening sessions” around the region to gain public reaction and field questions about the new agreement.

PatapscoAfterSandy10.30.12One such session in Virginia this week drew nearly 100 participants to a meeting in Richmond and a simultaneous online webinar. Listeners had lots of questions, many about what the draft agreement does not contain:

• Why does the agreement permit partners to opt out of any strategies they don’t like?

• Why does the agreement not address toxic chemical contamination in Bay waters and critters?

• Why does the agreement not address challenges to the Bay posed by climate change?

• Why aren’t more of the goals aspirational and challenging, a hallmark of earlier Bay agreements?

• Who will be held accountable if agreement goals are not met?

While the draft agreement contains much to commend, it ignores important issues and lacks the accountability that was so deficient in the earlier, failed agreements. (Perhaps that’s because the partner states, by majority vote, excluded many elements they didn’t like, such as goals to reduce toxic chemicals or mitigate climate change.)

If you give a rip and agree this proposed new agreement lacks sufficient content and “teeth,” let the Bay Program know by clicking here. But don’t dawdle. The public comment period ends Monday, March 17.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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