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Failure Is Not an Option

The following op-ed appeared in The Richmond-Times Dispatch earlier today.


It's report card time—time to see whether Virginia is making the grade on restoring the Chesapeake Bay and the local streams and rivers that feed into it.

Is Virginia flunking? No. In fact, halfway through the "grading period," the state is continuing to make progress on important aspects of its Bay cleanup assignments. However, Virginia is not showing adequate progress on other key subjects and must take this midpoint opportunity to make adjustments to stay on track toward its clean water goals.

Some background:

Recall that in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Virginia, and the other Bay jurisdictions established science-based limits, or caps, for the Bay's most serious pollutants—nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment—as required by the 41-year-old Clean Water Act.

Virginia—as did the other states—created its own specific plan to reduce its fair share of the pollution. Together the pollution limits and the state plans are known as the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

To ensure the blueprint was more than a paper promise, Virginia committed to setting two-year interim goals called milestones. The two-year milestones are specific, measurable, on-the-ground actions that Virginia pledges to take to keep Bay restoration moving forward. Every two years, Virginia and the other states announce what they intend to achieve over the next 24 months, and every two years, Virginia and the states publicly report what they have done, or not done, to achieve their milestones.

Most involved in the Bay restoration effort consider these two-year milestones critical to the Chesapeake's continued improvement. And the Bay is improving—underwater grasses and oysters are returning to some areas, and the Bay's 2012 oxygen-depleted dead zone was the smallest in decades. But the Bay remains seriously out of balance, and much work remains to be done to keep Bay health trending upward, especially in the face of regional population growth.

The milestones are the keys to continued progress. Earlier Bay restoration agreements set grand goals with far-off deadlines, identified no interim benchmarks to measure progress and held no one accountable for success or failure. The two-year milestones for the first time establish measurable, short-term goals and ensure transparency and accountability for achieving them. They also provide a critical learning tool to evaluate restoration programs, ramping up those that are effective and fine-tuning those that are not.

How is Virginia doing? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Choose Clean Water Coalition recently examined eight key milestones that Virginia set for 2012-13. Generally, we deemed the state to be on track if it had achieved 50 percent of its milestone goals at this the halfway point in the two-year period.

The grades:

Virginia is on track for five of the eight milestones: fencing livestock out of streams, planting forested buffers along stream banks, restoring urban streams, using retention ponds and other traditional tools to catch and hold stormwater runoff, and upgrading local sewage treatment plants to reduce pollution.

Virginia lags in using newer, low-impact runoff infiltration practices to reduce polluted runoff in cities and towns, in planting grass buffers along farm streams and using farm conservation tillage. In each of these cases, there are opportunities to improve implementation, and Virginia must take action.

The progress on five of the milestones demonstrates Virginia's ability to achieve its goals when leadership and will drive implementation. Success is not an accident, and milestones give us the opportunity to correct course and address areas of weakness. The Commonwealth simply will not meet its short- or long-term Bay cleanup goals if it does not invest in the strategies that will achieve them.

To extend the report card analogy a bit further, who are the parents who must sign the state's clean water report card and hold Virginia accountable? You are—all of us are—as Virginia citizens and the ultimate stewards of state government and our natural resources.

Are you content that more than 13,000 miles of Virginia streams and nearly the entire Chesapeake Bay remain polluted? Or that the Virginia Health Department must close beaches and shellfish harvest areas because of dirty water? Do you want to see accelerated and improved progress in cleaning up your neighborhood creek, your nearby swimming hole or your favorite fishing spot? Will you hold Virginia accountable to its obligations under the Clean Water Act, State Water Control Law, and the Virginia Constitution? Do you believe clean water is vital to the state's economy, our health, and our children's future?

If so, tell your elected officials—and those seeking elected office this November—that clean water and a restored Chesapeake Bay must remain top Virginia priorities. Failure to act on the lessons learned from the milestone report card will entail worse than a trip to the principal's office. It means continued pollution, human health hazards and lost jobs, all at huge cost to society.

Ann F. Jennings, Virginia Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Jacob Powell, Policy and Campaigns Manager of the Virginia Conservation Network and the Virginia lead for the Choose Clean Water Coalition


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