The following op-ed appeared in the Richmond-Times Dispatch yesterday.
Photo courtesy Public Domain Images.
The Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams are polluted, evidenced by chronic algae blooms, oxygen-deprived dead zones and water that too often is unsafe for swimming.
The results of a polluted Bay include lost jobs and economic opportunities, degraded fish and shellfish populations and future generations that may never know the bay's full potential.
To clean up our waters, we must reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution originating from many sources. Those include animal waste and farm fields; runoff from urban and suburban development; wastewater treatment plants and septic systems; and air pollution from cars, trucks and power plants.
Some sources, particularly wastewater treatment plants, have made significant progress in reducing pollution, largely due to Virginia's commitment to set strict regulatory limits and finance plant upgrades.
But not all sources have made such progress. In fact, the history of Chesapeake Bay restoration remains one of long-term goals set, then missed.
Most recently, in 2000, the Chesapeake Executive Council (bay state governors, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the District of Columbia's mayor) promised to restore the bay's health by 2010. However, in 2008 all acknowledged the effort would fail by a wide margin.
The Executive Council then recognized that setting only long-term goals lacked mechanisms for accountability and therefore was simply a recipe for failure. To address the missed goals, it charted a new course for the Chesapeake Bay's recovery.
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First, by establishing targeted pollution reductions with state-specific plans (Clean Water Blueprints) on how to achieve them, states and local governments would have clearer, self-determined direction on how to achieve these goals.
Second, by committing to short, two-year goals, or "milestones," to reduce pollution in local rivers, streams and the bay, a mechanism for accountability was established.
In May 2009, bay state governors released their first milestones, a set of measures to be implemented by 2011 that would accelerate the pace of restoration and put the states on a trajectory to achieve full implementation by 2025.
Ensuring that Virginia and the EPA set effective milestone goals and actually achieve them is critical to the success of the state's Clean Water Blueprint. The public must hold state and federal governments accountable to the milestone goals.
Accordingly, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Choose Clean Water Coalition worked together to evaluate and publicize Virginia's milestone progress. Our intent is to ensure that the long-term deadlines for bay cleanup are met by keeping the spotlight on the state's short-term goals and identifying policy solutions in the event that milestone goals are missed.
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We selected several goals within three general pollution areas—agricultural runoff, urban/suburban sources, and wastewater treatment—based on their potential to provide substantial nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reductions and to offer important lessons moving forward. We reviewed Virginia's progress in implementing improvements in cover crops, forest and grass buffers, wetland restoration, lawn fertilizers, stormwater runoff controls, septic pump-outs and wastewater controls.
The analysis was not without problems. We had difficulty fully understanding basic units of measurement used to track progress, estimates of baseline accomplishments from which to compare progress, and the intent of certain milestone commitments.
Without sufficient transparency and clear explanations of data, units and sources, the ability of the public to hold Virginia and the EPA accountable for progress is severely compromised. This first analysis reveals many ways to improve presentation and access to milestone data.
That said, we found that Virginia met six out of the nine milestone practices we selected for evaluation, including milestone commitments for wetland restoration, grass buffers, septic pump-outs and wastewater reductions. Additional efforts, however, are needed for implementation of cover crops, forest buffers, and lawn fertilizers to stay on track to achieve 60 percent implementation by 2017 and full implementation by 2025. We also found that more work is needed to fully track stormwater runoff controls.
What's our bottom line? We're cautiously optimistic. Virginia is tracking and making progress on short-term goals. For those missed goals, policy changes can make a difference. For lawn fertilizers, a new state law already on the books will improve progress. For cover crops and forest buffers, enhancing incentive programs for farmers can also improve progress.
We know that Virginia is capable of achieving pollution reductions when the political will is there to do it. By doing our own homework assessing Virginia's short-term progress, and holding Virginia and the EPA accountable for their commitments, we can restore the Chesapeake Bay and our rivers and streams.
Virginia Executive Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Virginia Conservation Network and Choose Clean Water Coalition
Learn more about the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—our best hope for a save Bay!