Little progress in Chesapeake Bay cleanup

WASHINGTON — Millions spent and not a penny to show for it. That might be the bottom line when all is said and done on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

The massive coastal watershed spans six states, encompasses roughly 64,000 square miles and is home to more than 16 million people. And the system continues to be degraded by pollution and development, putting this fragile resource at risk along with its multimillion-dollar commercial and recreational fisheries.

In 2000, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), together with state government officials, agreed that by 2010 the pollution entering the system would be significantly reduced. Since the Chesapeake 2000 agreement was reached, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Therefore, a recently issued EPA report about the cleanup status was a bitter pill to swallow for everyone involved.

According to the federal agency's own experts, "[t]he EPA and its … watershed partners will not meet [pollution] load reduction goals for developed lands by 2010, as established by the Chesapeake 2000 agreement."

A more realistic goal would be 2028, the EPA spokesman added.

Ironically, the EPA report noted that the surrounding states had achieved some progress in their efforts to improve Chesapeake Bay's water quality. For example, some antiquated wastewater treatment plants have been replaced and modernized, reducing the excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the watershed which rob the system of essential dissolved oxygen. In addition, pesticides and excess sediment from agricultural lands have also been curbed.

But the report harshly condemns the runoff from commercial and residential areas. "New development is increasing nutrient and sediment loads at rates faster than restoration efforts are reducing them," the report stated.

From 1985 to 2005, pollution loads from developed land increased by 16 percent, while loads from wastewater disposal plants and agriculture decreased. In the 1990s, impervious surfaces like asphalt and cement around the watershed increased by 41 percent, surfaces that lead to greater amounts of pollution runoff. Meanwhile, the human population grew by only 8 percent. Over the next two decades, however, experts believe the population will increase by almost 20 percent over current levels.

In conclusion, the EPA admitted that it needs to assume a greater leadership role in the cleanup efforts. According to the EPA's inspector general, the agency should work more closely with its partners to formulate more realistic goals for commercial and residential development. In particular, attention should be paid to load limits for nutrients and sediments that flow down stormwater drains. It is expected that these and other topics will be discussed at the next meeting of the EPA and the representatives of the Chesapeake Bay watershed state governments.

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